30 Oct 2021

Halloween traditions and etiquette

Poised between the Autumn and Winter, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition. As the nights drawn in and the leaves wither and die, it is an atmospheric time to indulge in the spine-chilling pleasures of ghost stories and enjoy some thoroughly spooky festivities.

Halloween Traditions

The origins of Halloween are often associated  with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, although there is little evidence that the Gaelic festivals held in the Autumn were ceremonies for the dead. It is more probable, therefore, that perceptions of Halloween as a time when the veil between the living and the dead is lifted and ghosts wander the earth, is linked the Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls. In fact Hallows is an archaic English word for saint – hence All Hallows Eve, the last night of October.

In the Middle Ages it was a commonly held belief that those who died unabsolved of their sins would be condemned to wait in Purgatory, and that living friends and relatives could release them from this state by praying, collecting alms, attending mass. On All Souls Day torchlit processions were held, bonfires were lit and church bells were rung to comfort lost souls.

By the 14th century the custom of ‘souling’ had developed in England. Poor supplicants would go from house to house on All Hallows Eve asking for soul cakes. Small cakes or loaves were exchanged in exchange for prayers for dead relatives (the origins of trick or treating).

During the Protestant Reformation these customs and observances were driven underground. It was not long before the festival had taken on more occult and demonic associations, which were disapproved of by the Church of England.

The widespread adoption of Halloween customs in the USA did not really take place until the 20th century, and at first trick or treating was seen as ritualised begging. It did not become a widely accepted until after the 1950s. Since then, aided by Hollywood and US television, Halloween has become an increasingly popular ritual in many countries worldwide.

‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The Jack O'Lantern

The legend of the jack o' lantern originated in Ireland. Stingy Jack, who double crossed the devil and was condemned, on his death, to become an eternal wanderer, was given a burning coal by the devil for light. Stingy Jack carried the coal in a carved out turnip and has since been wandering the world.

In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries brought this tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack o’lanterns.

Top etiquette tips for Halloween trick or treaters

•Bear in mind that many people have become increasingly antisocial as a result of the pandemic, and may be genuinely alarmed by strangers knocking on their door. Explain this to your children and curb over-enthusiastic knocking and commotion

•Only allow children to go trick or treating in your own neighbourhood. Make absolutely sure that they don’t stray beyond agreed boundaries and wander into streets where they are knocking on strangers’ doors.

•Remind the children not to be too greedy – if they are offered a basket of sweets tell them to help themselves to just one, unless invited to take more.

•“Trick or treat?” should be used as an ice-breaking formula, not a real threat. If a treat is not forthcoming and the householder is not welcoming, then you should advise your children to beat a hasty retreat. Pranks are not recommended.

•Trick or treating is fine for small kids (though very young children should be accompanied by an older sibling). But as children become gangling teenagers their antics might be viewed with unfriendliness and suspicion. Discourage older teens from terrorising (however innocently) the neighbourhood.

•If you don’t like the idea of being besieged by a succession of over-excited children you’re probably well-advised to turn out the lights and go out for the evening.

•If you don’t mind giving out treats, but would prefer not to have visitors, leave some sweets or chocolate on your front door step and let trick or treaters help themselves.

•If you’re at home on Halloween night, you can advertise your readiness to accept callers by switching on a porch light, leaving out a Jack o' Lantern, or even illuminating your garden.

•Make sure that hazards are removed from pathways, and keep noisy dogs behind closed doors.

•If you’re providing treats, you can buy special Halloween confectionery, complete with ghoulish wrapping). These will be universally popular with children, who might turn their noses up at your home-baked goodies.

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