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An insider's guide to: Halloween

By Paul Sussman for CNN
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Today is Halloween. As ghosts and goblins stalk the streets, and witches streak through the night sky, here is a guide to this distinctly spooky festival.

Ghosts, goblins, witches? Come on, grow up!

You won't be so blasé when the sixteen-toed cannibal swamp pumpkin creeps out from underneath your bed at midnight, snuffling for human flesh. October 31 is when dark and wicked things stalk the earth, and woe betide anyone who doesn't believe it.

Okay okay, so what's it all about?

I've just told you: It's a day -- or to be more specific a night -- when dark and wicked things creep from their lairs/tombs/caves/covens/coffins/haunted houses and ... well, stalk the earth.

I can see this is going to be hard work. Let's try something easier: Where does the name Halloween come from?

The word Halloween is a contraction of All-Hallow-Even, or All-Hallows-Eve, since October 31 is the evening before the Christian festival of All Hallows' Day ("Hallows" comes from the Middle English word "halwen" meaning holy.) This feast, more commonly known as All Saints Day, was first celebrated on November 1 by Pope Gregory III (731-741), although it was not until a century later, under Pope Gregory IV (827-844), that the day became standardized throughout the Christian world.

So how exactly do spooks and ghouls tie in with a sacred Christian festival?

Good question, and one to which there is no definitive answer. The end of October was an important time in the pre-Christian pagan calendar, marking the point at which autumn gave way to winter - the ancient Celtic festival of "Samhain," for instance, or "summer's end", was held on November 1 (in Ireland Halloween is still known as "Samhain Night") . The fact that these pagan rites were signaling the onset of cold and darkness, when the land is empty and nothing grows, probably lead to this particular time of the year being especially associated with death and decay. The subsequent Christian linkage of paganism with black magic would have amplified these dark associations, making October 31 a date peculiarly redolent of evil goings-on (it has been suggested that Gregory III deliberately chose November I as the date for All Saints Day in order to overshadow and supersede the pagan hold on this period in the calendar).

Does All Souls' Day have any relevance here?

Very possibly. All Souls' Day, a Christian festival commemorating all dead believers, is held on November 2 (it was first established by Odilo of Cluny in the 11th Century). Although there is no clear historical link between Halloween and All Souls Day, a festival specifically focusing on death and the departed would no doubt have added to the sense of this time of year having distinctly dark connotations. (In Mexico both November 1 and 2 are considered "Día de los Muertos", the Day of the Dead, a festival derived from the Aztec custom of commemorating dead ancestors.)

So let me get this clear: Halloween goes all the way back to ancient times, or at least parts of it do, and involves pagans, Christians, Aztecs, Celts and someone called Odilo of Cluny?

Confusing I admit. All you really need to know is that Halloween incorporates a host of different cultural influences from a host of different eras. That said the festival as it exists today -- pumpkins, people dressing up as ghosts and witches, children trick-or-treating -- derives almost exclusively from the late 19th/early 20th Century. Weird as his name makes him sound. Odilo of Cluny almost certainly never went door-to-door disguised as Freddy Krueger.

So where is it celebrated?

Although Halloween is most commonly associated with America Britain and Ireland, it is celebrated throughout Europe, as well as in Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and on the Caribbean island of Bonaire (where it is customary for trick-or-treating children to target shops rather than private houses).

Trick-or-treating: Where does that come from?

In spirit at least it can probably be traced back to the medieval practice of "souling", where poor people would travel from house to house begging for alms or food. As we know it today, however, trick-or-treating evolved in the U.S. in the early 20th century - the first recorded instance dates from 1915, although it did not become common practice until the 1930s.

Why pumpkins with ghoulish faces and candles inside?

Again, the roots of this lie in medieval Europe where at times of celebration it was customary to hollow out large vegetables such as turnips and wurzels and put lighted candles in them. It was in America that pumpkins first started being used for this purpose, for no other obvious reason than that there seem to a surfeit pumpkins in that part of the world.

Any other weird and wonderful Halloween customs?

Loads of them. In England apple bobbing is common; in Anoka, Minnesota - the self-proclaimed Halloween capital of the world -- there is a large parade through the center of town; and in Ireland bonfires are lit, fireworks let off and salt sprinkled on children's hair to ward off evil spirits. And of course every year at least 100 people worldwide are sucked to death by giant vampire duvets possessed by the spirits of dead witches.


Oh yeah? Just wait till you feel that hungry devil material tightening voraciously around your thighs and belly. Happy Halloweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen!!

Halloween masks on display in Bangkok, Thailand.


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