Everything you need to know about Halloween (unless you're Samhainophobic)

Millennial parents have taught their children that Halloween is purely a night of excessive sweets, pumpkins, whimsical costumes and the odd harmless prank

It’s that time of year once again; the leaves have turned a warm shade of amber, there’s a distinct chill in the air and the nights are getting darker and longer.

And if myth and folk tales are to be believed, then one of these long autumnal nights in particular does not belong to the living – we know it today as Halloween.

Millennial parents have taught their children that Halloween is purely a night of excessive sweets, pumpkins, whimsical costumes and the odd harmless prank; you can’t walk more than a few meters in an urban neighbourhood on October 31st without bumping into Elsa from Frozen, a few token ghosts and monsters and, this year, I’d image some Pokémon will be joining in on the festivities too.

And that’s all well and good – there’s nothing wrong with partaking in the ‘Americanised’ version of Halloween. In fact, it’s a joy for most to behold; who wouldn’t want to put face paint on, get free sweets and be home in time to devour them in front of the TV, which will no doubt be airing a modern remake of a horror film from years gone by.

Or perhaps you’re like us and when you get in you curl up with a good spooky read (but still proceed to eat a year’s worth of sweets in the space of two hours).

But being a publisher of classics, and an abundance of classic horror stories at that, we thought we’d delve a little deeper and take a brief look at the history of Halloween, because hidden behind the mask of the jovial traditions we all know and love today is a darker reality, one worth knowing perhaps before you head out alone on the very night where the veil between the living and the dead is supposedly at its thinnest… 

The notion of Halloween dates back to the ancient Celtics, who populated what we now call the United Kingdom, Ireland and northern parts of France some 2,000 years ago. They celebrated their new year on November 1st, a day that signified the end of the harvest and the start of the harsh winter ahead, a time of year that often brought about illness and death.

The Celts believed that on their new year’s eve, which they called ‘Samhain,’ the link between their world and the afterlife was at its weakest and spirits from the beyond were able to return to earth for the night.

In order to keep the ghosts from entering their old homes, the current occupiers would leave offerings of wine and food on their doorsteps in the hope that the spirits would have no further need to come inside (and the tradition of giving food to scary entities that come knocking is born).

They also decided to wear masks whenever they left the house in the hope that they would be mistaken for fellow ghosts and be left well alone – sound familiar?

The Christian church later renamed this day ‘All Saints Day’ in order to de-paganise the festival and, fast forward a little further to the 8th century, they changed it once again to ‘All Hallows Eve,’ which is now simply abbreviated to the modern term, Halloween. 

As is always the case with busy, modern lives, you want to know more but you simply haven’t got the time because you need to rush out and buy sweets, or the little one has demanded some last minute costume adjustments. Well if that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place.   

Here are Wordsworth Editions’ five favourite fun facts about Halloween:

1. The first instance of the carved pumpkins we all know and love today (I use the term love rather loosely here) were actually not made from pumpkins at all – they were made using turnips and sometimes even potatoes. And we think hollowing out a pumpkin is hard work!

2. The term ‘Samhainophobia’ is the official name given to someone who suffers from a fear of Halloween.

3. Black and orange are undoubtedly the quintessential Halloween colours. Orange and autumn go hand-in-hand, which is one reason for the colour choice, but orange also symbolises strength and resolve which was needed to get through the long harsh winters. Black unsurprisingly stands for darkness and death, a subtle reminder that Halloween was never truly a time for the living.

4. The game ‘bobbing for apples’ is thought to have derived from the ancient Roman harvest festival that honours the goddess of fruit trees, Pamona.

5. Folklore has it that if you encounter a spider on Halloween then it is thought to be the spirit of a passed loved one watching over you.  

So now you’re armed with the facts. And when you’re freezing, longing to be at home in the warmth, enjoying a good book (a Wordsworth edition perhaps – we had to slip the hard sell in somewhere) and the shrieks of your sugar-addled child demanding to visit ‘just one more house’ are all that can be heard, remember – it’s only for one night and it will all be over soon enough.

And if nothing else, this night has evolved from ancient rituals and traditions dating back thousands of years, something you’re passing onto your children, regardless whether or not they can stand still long enough to hear about it.

So, in amongst the trick-or-treating and apple-bobbing you can tell yourself, at least, that there is a homage of sorts to our ancient ancestors and that hiding behind the garish 21st century Halloween mask, which you may or may not be physically wearing yourself, is a deep and rich history just waiting to be discovered.

Happy Halloween from all of us here at Wordsworth HQ.

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