Halloween by Gabriel Tusinski

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Halloween is an increasingly global commercial and consumerist celebration. As October 31st approaches, special types of candy, costumes and masks, and plastic decorative pumpkins and skeletons appear in retail outlets around the world. While most popular in the United States, Halloween has come to be associated with a range of recognizable symbols and activities. People dress in elaborate (often ghoulish or scary) costumes, carve pumpkins into grotesque faces called Jack O’Lanterns, participate in harvest related activities like bobbing for apples or hayrides, visit purportedly haunted places, and go “trick-or-treating,” in which costumed children demand candy from strangers under the playful threat of a prank or trick if denied a treat.

Halloween Masks for Sale, photo by Liba Taylor / Robert Harding World Imagery

Halloween is a carnival of light-hearted fright and danger in which everyday social roles and norms are temporarily suspended or inverted. In this guise, few might suspect that the roots of this annual ritual span back at least four millennia to northern European Celtic pre-Christian traditions and their gradual transformation and spread by the global missionary influence of the Catholic Church.

Samhain and its Catholic Transformations:

Halloween has its cultural and historical roots in the Celtic New Year festival of Samhain (pronounced SAW-ween), which marked the end of the harvest and the start of the dark days of winter. Celtic people lived in the areas we know as Ireland, Wales, western England, and parts of Scotland and northern France. Archeological excavations at the Hill of Tara in Ireland have revealed at least 4000 year-old ritual sites aligned with the sun’s path midway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. Additional archeological evidence suggests that Samhain included feasting, sacrifice of livestock, and large bonfires that may have had protective, purifying, and divinatory purposes.

It has also been suggested that Celtic belief viewed Samhain as what anthropologists call a “liminal” (transitional or threshold) period in which the boundaries separating the living and the dead are thin, allowing otherworldly beings like spirits, ghosts, or fairies to walk amongst and commune with the living. These beings (Aos Sí) demanded food to ensure a bountiful harvest in the following season. Modern “trick-or-treating” can be traced to Celtic practices of wearing costumes and masks to imitate and protect one’s self from potentially dangerous wandering shades. Over time, this transitioned into “mumming” in which costumed groups perform poems, songs, dance, or plays in exchange for food, a practice that continues to this day.

Archeological Site at Mound of Hostages, Hill of Tara, Ireland, photo by Werner Forman Archive/N.J. Saunders

As the Christian Church expanded to northern Europe, conversion of local populations gained purchase by incorporating pre-existing religious practices like Samhain. Halloween is thus often held as a classic example of “syncretic” religious practice, blending together different cultural beliefs. The contemporary name “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallow’s Evening,” part of Allhallowtide, a three-day Catholic celebration dedicated to the remembrance of the “Saints” (also known as “hallows”) the faithful dead who have been admitted to heaven, and “Souls,” the spirits of the dead who remain in purgatory, not being allowed into heaven because they died without confessing their sins. Modern “jack-o-lanterns” are believed to derive from an earlier Irish practice of hollowing out and carving large turnips into anguished faces representing these tortured penitent souls stuck in purgatory.

The sequence and dates of the All Hallow’s Eve (October 31), All Saint’s Day (November 1) and All Soul’s Day (November 2) were set by Pope Gregory III in 731 AD in what is believed to be an attempt to align Roman Catholic rites with pre-Christian Celtic beliefs about death, the dead, and rebirth.

Traditional Irish Turnip Jack O Lantern via Rannpháirtí anaithnid

Colonial Missionisation and Regional Variations of Allhallowtide:

Allhallowtide spread as the Christian Church accompanied European colonial expansion. In some areas, it combined with indigenous practices to engender important new forms of cultural expression. One example is the Mexican “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) celebrated on October 31. Following Spanish Catholic missionisation, pre-Columbian veneration of an Aztec death goddess at the beginning of summer in the Aztecan calendar was reconfigured to correspond to the dates of Allhallowtide.
Contemporary practices of Day of the Dead abound with indigenous stylistic elements. These include the production of skeleton figurines and edible skulls called calaveras, colorful and intricate decorative paper cutouts, and offerings of flowers (especially bright orange marigolds) and favorite foods to the spirits of the dead on family altars (ofrendas).

Pre-Columbian Skull Motifs on Temple Walls, Tenochtitlan, Mexico [c. 1325], photo by Werner Forman Archive/ N.J. Saunders


La Calavera de la Catrina, 1913, photo by Jose Guadalupe Posada / Bridgeman Art Library

In Southeast Asia, indigenous Austronesian forms of ancestor worship and ideas about the continued presence and power of the spirits of the dead have similarly combined with Catholic practices. Austronesian belief systems throughout island Southeast Asia commonly treat death less as an event than as an unfinished, trans-generational process requiring ongoing care and attention. In the Filipino celebration of Pistang Kalag, on November 1st spirits are guided back by lit candles placed on their graves. The living decorate and hold vigil at loved ones’ graves, while the dead also visit the homes of relatives, who build altars with family portraits, figurines of saints, flowers, food offerings, and betel nut. Similarly, in the predominantly Catholic former Portuguese colony of Timor-Leste, November 2nd marks Loron Matebian or Finadu (“the day of souls”). To celebrate, Timorese journey back to ancestral villages (knua) to lay flowers and candles on the graves of dead family members and visit traditional origin houses called uma lulik where they receive betel nut imbued with ancestors’ spirits through special forms of ritual speech. Shrines set up in outer sitting rooms of houses with photographs of dead relatives, candles, figurines of saints, cigarettes, and especially betel nut from ancestral houses are thought to please visiting spirits.

Candles and Bougainvillea Blossoms on a Grave in Dili, Timor-Leste, photo by Gabriel Tusinski

Another component is se matebian, a meal shared by the living and the dead. These vary from simple meals of rice and water arrayed on a mat on the floor to quite elaborate feasts of coconut rice balls and roast pork, as well as soft-drinks, beer, red wine, or local palm brandy (tua) carefully arrayed on tables in individual portions. The dead are invited into the house to eat while the living wait their turn before sitting in the very same spots and eating the food that the spirits consumed just moments before. Only after placating spirits in this way can Timorese engage in hamulak– a local form of prayer ensuring health, success, or bounty in the year to come. While these practices appear quite distinct from Halloween in the United States and elsewhere, they are historically linked via the Christian Church’s incorporation of Celtic traditions.

About The Author

Gabriel Tusinski is Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences interdisciplinary cluster at SUTD. His research focuses on cultural revitalization and post-conflict reconstruction in Timor-Leste. He is currently working with SUTD’s O-Lab to build a regional trans-disciplinary consortium of design communities, a biennial thematic workshop on community-based design, and a related scholarly magazine.