Halloween: how and why is this holiday celebrated on All Saints’ Eve?

Theme of many films, books or even series, the Halloween party, which is held every year on October 31, is an opportunity for children to dress up as ghosts, witches or other terrifying characters, and go to the famous “candy hunt” – called “trick or treat” across the Atlantic – while the adults dig pumpkins and decorate their interior with cobwebs, black cats and other bloody traces. Today denounced by some because of the commercial nature of the holiday, Halloween has millennial roots, which must be found more than 2,000 years ago, on the side of the Celts.

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The origins of Halloween: a Celtic festival

“To go back to the origins of Halloween, you have to go to the Celts, around 600 years BC. Very sensitive to the seasons, the Celts celebrated the start of a new year at the beginning of November”, indicates Nadine Cretin, specialist historian relations between the territory and its festive, ritual and spiritual uses. Thus the feast of Samhain (which means “reunion” in Celtic languages) was celebrated one night, on the sixth day of the moon at the beginning of November, which corresponds in our current calendar to the night of October 31 to November 1.

“This date opened the cold season, it was at this time that the cattle had to be brought in, and that the crops had to be stored in the attics”, specifies the historian. “During this festival, families gathered to celebrate around a meal the beginning of the year”, she adds, while affirming that very few historical elements come to describe this festival before the 18th century. In modern times, on the other hand, we find this holiday in Ireland, which has become “Halloween”, a contraction of “All Hallows Eve”, literally “the eve of all saints”.

Witches and demons in the dark

Already at this time, the party means “the return of darkness, the presence of night and demonic beings”, describes Nadine Cretin. “It’s a scary party, where the supernatural world and the world of the living mingle. We believe at this time that witches can come into this world”, she says, detailing some traditions: a new fire is lit in the fireplace, and the children go out into the street, to sing but above all deliver “their best wishes. There was something magical about the arrival of the children: if we gave them nothing or if we refused to to open the door to them, we were attracting a bad year. This became the American ‘trick or treat’ in the 1930s,” she said.

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Halloween, an Americanized holiday in the 20th century

On the occasion of this festival (of which there are many traces, especially in Ireland, in the 19th century), the children begin what Nadine Cretin describes as “tours of vegetable lanterns”: they walk with a vegetable – often a turnip or a beet, the flesh of which is hollowed out to represent eyes and a mouth, and which is illuminated with a small candle. The little ones then parade with their lanterns held at arm’s length.

Then came the great Irish famine crisis of the 19th century, resulting from the potato crisis: many Irish people then emigrated to the other side of the Atlantic and landed on the east coast of the United States, with their traditions, including Halloween. The mayonnaise sets very quickly, and the Americanized Halloween begins to look like the one we know today, with black cats, cobwebs… “It always evokes the other world, Halloween reflects a metaphysical concern for the search for the other world”, analyzes Nadine Cretin, who also evokes the influence of another celebration, the Mexican “El dia de los muertos”, which “plays down death. Young people parade in processions , disguised as a skeleton, eating pastries in the shape of corpses”, she describes.

Tributes to Jack’O’Lantern, Pumpkins and Straw Bales

Today’s Halloween accessories nevertheless remain linked to the Halloween of yesteryear: arriving in the United States, those who celebrated Halloween began to dig pumpkins, and to call them “Jacks”. O’Lantern”, according to a legendary myth. “It would be the name of an Irishman who was said to be too miserly and too drunk, who did not deserve paradise and whom the devil did not want either, who therefore found himself condemned to wander on earth”, explains Nadine Dumbass. The pumpkins being too heavy, we no longer carry them at arm’s length, so we decorate the steps with them.

We also find in front of the American porches bales of straw, in reference to the end of the agricultural year, originally celebrated. An element that we do not find at all in France, where Halloween really started to take hold in the 90s, around the colors orange and black. While Halloween is celebrated today mainly in Europe and the Americas, this non-confessional Anglo-Saxon holiday receives a rather neutral welcome in France.

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The influence of Halloween in pop culture

While some party or have fun strolling the streets on Halloween night, others prefer to pop out the popcorn and spend their evening watching a horror movie. It must be said that the event has many times been a source of inspiration for the world of cinema. Witness John Carpenter, director of the very famous film “Halloween, the night of the masks”, released in France in 1979. The story tells that of Michael Myers, a little boy who is committed to a psychiatric hospital after having murdered his sister . But fifteen years later, Michael Myers manages to escape. A real night of horror then begins.

A low-budget film that quickly met with great success, becoming the first part of a long saga. If horror cinema is of course a field of choice to feed all a lot of terrifying fantasies relating to the Halloween party, many children’s films have also been inspired by the event. Like “Hocus Pocus: The Three Witches”, released in 1994, where Winifred, Sarah and Mary Sanderson, dead for almost 300 years, are back in Salem after young Max accidentally lights a candle! But could also be cited “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, directed by Tim Burton in 1993. Because if it is above all a “Christmas film”, its main character, Jack Skellington, is for his directly inspired by the famous Jack’O’Lantern!

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Halloween: how and why is this holiday celebrated on All Saints’ Eve?