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The origins of Halloween

From Celtic roots to its rise in popularity in Australia

Since its inception in the eighth and ninth century, Halloween has been celebrated in countries around the world. University of Sydney experts weigh in on the festival's origins and its rising popularity in Australia.

A celebration with Celtic and Catholic roots

Halloween is no longer just an American affair, with a number of other countries - including Australia - increasingly embracing the associated quirks and spookiness in recent years. But what’s the real meaning behind this scary celebration, and where did it start?

Dr Dominique Wilson, who completed a PhD at the University of Sydney’s Department of Studies in Religion with a focus on the occult and pre-Christian mythology, explains that Halloween's roots date back some 2000 years ago.

The term Halloween is derived from All Hallow’s Eve, and the Catholic Church’s celebration of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day on the 1st and 2nd November, which can be traced back to the eighth and ninth centuries.
Dr Dominique Wilson

"The Catholic Church’s decision to hold these celebrations on these dates was influenced by a much older Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”) which started at sundown on 31 October."

Dr Wilson says Samhain is traditionally one of the two days of the year when the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds drop, allowing the spirits of the dead and denizens of the otherworld access to both worlds.

"These otherworldly visitors include the sidhe (or fairies) and other creatures from folklore and legend often associated with playing tricks on humans and other mischief-making."

“Many of the customs and beliefs associated with Halloween or Samhain stem from older rituals and folklore which have been passed down through generations. These include numerous rituals for divining the future and the custom of dressing up as something ‘other’ at Halloween, a practice which is still popular today.”

Three Halloween pumpkins

The Irish brought the custom of carving pumpkins to the US

Carving out the history of pumpkins

The modern celebration of Halloween is a tradition that dates back to the 1840s when Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine came to America, explains Professor Carole Cusack, Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Studies in Religion.

"Although Hallowe’en was known to earlier colonists, the Irish brought folk customs including the creation of jack-o’-lanterns, hollowed out vegetables, specifically pumpkins in America, with faces carved on them and candles inside to illuminate them.

"Trick-or-treating, dressing up in costume and knocking on doors requesting gifts, is also known from Scottish and Irish folklore."

Bowl filled with fun size snickers, mars bars and packets of m&ms.

‘Americanisation’ of Australian culture

As questions arise over Australia's participation in the festival, Dr Rodney Taveira, a lecturer in American Studies from the University's United States Studies Centre, says the rising popularity of Halloween in Australia might be attributed to three factors:

  1. The uptake of all things American in Australia. The recent proliferation of American food in Australian has been huge: Australians can now pay $25 for 6-inch tall burgers and fried chicken, and American-style diners with problematic murals of dead rappers on the wall have been popping up.
  2. Social media. Not only has social media made American culture more accessible beyond the US, it also demands content from its users. Halloween provides an opportunity to dress up and share photos in a competitive and trackable way. It is also easily identifiable by hashtags; a common point of reference about which people, brands, and venues can participate.
  3. Mean Girls. The impact of this film cannot be overstated. The scene with the Halloween party shows how to do it right (and wrong) according to the complex mores of American high school culture. This scene has continually put the night that is Halloween in people’s minds since the film was released and has since been repeated on television screens around the world."

Dr Taveira says Australians, especially younger ones, are looking to the US with greater frequency and accessibility, with global popular culture taking many of its cues from the US.

Halloween will only continue to entrench itself as an event in Australia each year. It has become a part of Australian culture and has become normalised by its repeated appearance on American television, film and social media.
Dr Rodney Taveira

“The previous resistance that existed amongst Australians toward the US has waned as our focus on the UK ‘ages out’, and global youth culture is increasingly centred on the US.”

27 October 2016

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