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What is Halloween?

Halloween has evolved greatly even in the last 40 or so years that I have been alive. Halloween today conjures up thoughts of ghost stories, parties in horror costumes and children knocking on doors saying 'trick or 'treat?' For ghost hunting enthusiasts it is perceived that all its rituals summons the afterlife to walk the earth for us to interact with but is that really the case?

The history of Halloween is not entirely known but is thought to have derived from an ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (Sahwin) over 3000 years ago. Samhain was a time when the ancient pagans would ask druid priests to pray for them as they took harvest of their stock in preparation for the long winter. They believed that on October 31st the space between the living and the dead was at its thinnest and so prayer and festivals would be performed in an attempt to stop evil spirits causing damage to their crops.

The festivals would involve dressing up around bonfires to appease the spirits and it is believed the fires would attract insects to the area thus attracting bats to feed. Samhain was the marking of the end of the Celtic year and as well as the festivals of harvest, gifts and treats were left out to pacify the spirits in the hope that the following year the harvest would be more plentiful. It is thought that this custom evolved into trick or treating.

From the 16th century 'guising' took place in parts of Scotland Ireland and Wales. This is where children would dress up in costumes and go door to door asking for apples or nuts for the Halloween festival. In Scotland youths would often go door to door with blackened faces from the ashes of the sacred bonfires often threatening mischief if they were not rewarded with treats.

The word Halloween is of Christian origin and is a contraction of All Hallows Evening and thought to date back to around 1745. Halloween itself means hallowed evening or holy evening. The modern phrase is thought to have come from the Scottish version on the word evening - e'en and so Hallows E'en became Halloween. From at least the 18th Century imitating malignant spirits led to playing jokes in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.

It is thought that from the 19th Century pranksters used hollowed out turnips with carved grotesque faces as lanterns. The lanterns were said to represent the spirits or used to ward off evil spirits. This was common in parts of Scotland and Ireland as well as Somerset where they celebrated Punkie Night. This was commonly practised on the last Thursday of October but is related to the Halloween festival where children with jack o lanterns marched around singing:-

"Give me a candle, give me a light, if you don't, you'll get a fright"

This practice is thought to have spread wider in England in the 20th Century.

It is thought nowadays that the Halloween traditions we are all used to have come across the pond from America and I think our traditions did die out to a certain extent as from my own perspective growing up Halloween was a non event.

The tradition is believed to have been brought to the American populous by the immigrant communities during the mid 19th Century and by 1910 it was being celebrated from the east to west coast by people from all race and religion.

It wasn't until the early 1970s that haunted houses were being used as featured attractions for Halloween in America the first being Knotts Berry Farm in California where it hosted its Knotts Scary Farm event in October 1973. It wasn't until the late 1980s that theme parks entered the business of theme Halloween nights seriously while Disney itself now hosts Mickeys not so scary Halloween party.

I think Hollywood films have certainly played a huge role in the popularity of Halloween as a scare fest in the UK . My own memory is that the film ET which featured the Alien being taken away during the annual Halloween dress up, started my own peer groups starting to go out trick or treating. Bear in mind this was 1982 so not that long ago figuratively speaking.

Certainly Halloween has been a huge money maker for the film industry with the likes of the Halloween franchise (1978 to 2009), Trick or Treat, The Pumpkin Karver, All Hallows Eve and many more cashing in on our desire for fright.

Over the last 10 years it has become a huge commercial industry with department stores and supermarkets all stocking various items to decorate your home to look like some macabre film set either to host parties or just to amuse the trick or treaters that invariably come knocking in the hope of free sweets.

Halloween is certainly one of those nights that expectations are raised in the hope that people can go on a ghost hunt and expect higher levels of activity, after all it is the only night of the year that the veil between life and death is at its thinnest isn't it?

However please take into account how Halloween has evolved based on a 3000 year old tradition. My advice is to enjoy the tradition dress up and party and if you happen to see a ghost or two along the way then all the better just make sure your ghost isn't somebody in a costume.

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