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Wicked! A history of Halloween

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There’s more to Halloween than a candy fest with kids dressing up as ghouls and goblins. Trisha Hughes gets ready to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

Picture this. A bright moon is rising between layers of heavy black cloud illuminating trembling trees that loom out of the darkness, their branches reaching into the sky like stripped bones. There’s a penetrating chill in the air and a profound sense of foreboding permeates the gloom as figures lurk in the shadows around the edges of buildings. In the distance, a cat hisses as it skitters nervously away to hide in the safety and darkness of nearby bushes. It is a night when the natural world is forced to confront the powers of the supernatural.

No, we are not watching a Stephen King movie. We’re in DB and I’m getting into the swing of things with Halloween fast approaching. Homes and golf buggies are being decorated; Fusion and Wellcome are full of cobwebs, skeletons and carved pumpkins, and there is excitement in the air as children chatter eagerly about their costumes.

All Hallows’ Eve

When we think of Halloween our minds conjure up images of ghosts, witches, vampires and monsters. On October 31, you can hardly walk through the plaza or along Headland Drive without bumping into a blood- sucking vampire, a zombie or a witch riding a broomstick. Hollywood and literature have crafted versions of these creatures for us but like many fantastic characters of myth and lore, they have a basis in reality. Halloween has been called many names through the centuries. The original word ‘Hallowe’en’ actually means ‘hallowed evening’ and the last day of October has also been called All Hallows’ Eve, Day of the Dead, All Saints’ Eve and Samhain (Summer’s End). For centuries it’s been considered one of the most magical nights of the year. It’s a night of supernatural power when we are meant to believe the veil that separates our world from the otherworld is at its thinnest and I, for one, have always been more than a little wary about celebrating the Day of the Dead. Even the air feels different on Halloween.

Being a superstitious woman of Irish descent who avoids black cats, walking under ladders and putting umbrellas up inside the house, I believe October 31 involves so much more than knocking on strangers’ doors asking for candy and chocolate. Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong with chocolate. After eating chocolate, I personally feel godlike. Bring forth the chocolates, I say. But there is much more to Halloween than trick or treating.

Day of the Dead

Today, we have lost the significance of this most meaningful celebration but the Celts believed that the normal laws of space and time were held in abeyance at Samhain, allowing a window to open where the spirit world could intermingle with the living. Many believed it was a night when the dead could cross the veils and physically return to the land of the living to celebrate with their family or clan. As such, burial mounds were lit at midnight, with torches lining crumbling walls, so that the spirits of the dead could find their way in the darkness. Out of this ancient tradition comes one of our most famous icons of the holiday: the Jack-o-lantern.

The Jack-o-lantern was used as a light for the lost soul of Jack, a notorious trickster, stuck between worlds. Jack is said to have tricked the devil into the trunk of a tree by carving an image of a cross on it. He successfully trapped the devil but after already having been denied access to Heaven, and then having also angered the devil in Hell, Jack became a lost soul. Asa consolation, the devil gave him a sole ember to light his way through the darkness between worlds.

Originally, Celts placed candles in hollowed-out turnips to help guide Jack’s lost spirit back home. Hence the term: Jack-o-lanterns. Later, when immigrants came to the new world, pumpkins were more readily available, and so carved- out pumpkins holding a lit candle served the same function.

Summer’s End

In one sense, Halloween was a celebration of plenty and homecoming. It was harvest time and people would have been well fed after the bountiful summer and autumn seasons and they would have gathered in their homes after long days spent working in the fields. The harvest was stored in the barns and the flocks would have been driven in from the summer pastures in preparation. Traders, sailors and people with skills to offer journeyed home for the celebrations.

Halloween was a time for reunions, stories, the settlement of disputes and the learning of lessons to be applied in the next year. More than anything, it was a time for relaxation. In medieval Ireland, local kings were said to hold a feast at their royal halls for a week before and after Samhain, for all these purposes.

There was, however, the other face of the festival. It ushered in winter, the most frightening, uncomfortable and inconvenient of all the seasons. Even in modern Britain, it is the time when the clocks go back and the night rushes early into the afternoon. Halloween was the feast that prefaced months of darkness, cold, hunger and the physical illnesses consequent of all of those.

What was coming was the season of death – not just of leaves, flowers and light, but of humans, as more would perish in the winter and early spring than at any other time of year. That was why Halloween was widely regarded as the time when the spirits of darkness and fear, the evil and malevolent forces of nature, were let loose upon the earth.

Happy Halloween!

People reacted to this forbidding prospect in two different ways. In ancient times, Halloween was the festival of prophecy in which people gathered together and most frequently tried to predict the future. In pre-modern times, the prediction most often sought was who would live through the winter. Bonfires were lit for protection and torches carried around homes and fields sun-wise, from east to west. The flames, smoke and even the ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers.

Another reaction was to mock darkness and fear by singing songs about spirits and lighting candles on the graves of the dead. In the 16th century, people began going from house to house impersonating the souls of the dead. They recited verses or songs and received offerings on their behalf, usually a small round cake called a soul cake.

For me, there is magic in a night when pumpkins glow by moonlight. Instead of a terrifying night spent watching fearfully out of windows for movement while bonfires burned brightly, Halloween has become a joyous holiday for families to get together and have a bit of fun by dressing up as ghosts and goblins and wandering the streets with friends.

Halloween heralds hocus pocus, spell making and the telling of creepy stories; it’s a night to eat, drink and be scary. Even anticipating the festival makes me feel as happy as a witch in a broom factory. Happy Halloween everyone!


  • October 28: The Halloween Zombie Run in Siena Park, www.hkzombierun.com
  • October 28: A spooky night of fun at EpicLand, www.epiclandhk.com
  • October 31: Trick or treating on Headland Drive
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