The true nature of Halloween

The Jack-o-lantern has become a symbol of Halloween. Picture: UNSPLASH.

By Maria Millers

31 October is Halloween, a more recent addition to our Australian calendar of festivals. Many would protest that here again is another American cultural import, a consumer event we could well do without. But in fact Halloween has its roots in the Celtic Samhain, an autumnal pagan festival marking the end of summer, and later conflated with the Western Christian feast of All Saints Day, celebrating not just the Saints but all who have departed this earth.

Today the honouring of saints or praying for the dead has been subsumed by its commercial potential and is only evident in the symbols and paraphernalia associated with its celebration, an event that is predicted to reach $490 million in spending this year, a 14 per cent increase on 2022, with over five million Australians expected to participate in its rituals and symbols.

Not everybody is happy with this. Last week the senior chaplain of St Michael’s school in St Kilda announced that Halloween would be banned on the school campus warning that Halloween gives a false impression that “what is actually potentially spiritually dangerous is innocuous” and may lead to “more sinister occult practices later in life”.

True, much of the costuming revolves around macabre symbols of death: ghouls, ghosts, skeletons, witches, and those animals seen as harbingers of death: bats, owls, spiders. But in a death denying culture it may not be such a bad thing to be occasionally reminded of our mortality.

So what is there to celebrate once the religious aspect of Halloween no longer resonates? Surely there are positives in any event that brings people together. We now lead such atomised lives, many of us having less to little contact with relatives, friends and neighbours. The old glue that bound communities is no longer there and any unifying event has to be seen as desirable.

Human beings are wired for ritual and ceremony and today as traditional sources wither away we look for new ways to replace what is lost, particularly in times of change and trouble. Dressing up in costumes, creating Jack-o’-Lanterns and Trick and Treating may be not just for families getting together but also satisfying a deeper need and a step towards building community.

Parents will of course be reluctant to let their children roam around the streets knocking on strangers’ doors. But here is the chance for families to go together, provide security for the children and get to know that ‘weird old man in that knock down house behind the hedge’.

There could be a cost at a time when many household are feeling financially stretched. Here is where creativity and restraint come into play. Costuming should be easily solved by using creatively what you have, sharing and checking out your local op shops.

There have been warnings about waste and environmental dangers of some products: the wastage in carving whole pumpkins without planning their after use and using fake spider web which presents a hazard to wildlife. Plastic lolly wrappers create litter and pollution. But just as many of us no longer celebrate Christmas with dinners suited to a cold northern hemisphere so too we can change the trappings of an autumnal festival to suit our spring. At the same time we can reject the negatives, embrace the positives and adapt them to a way of enriching our lives without spending a fortune and creating a pile of waste.

The poem I’ve chosen this week is a short one that will appeal to children but carries a strong environmental message of ‘Do not waste’. Let’s not see lolly wrappers littering our streets. Or mountains of pumpkin pulp and sad Jack o’ Lanterns at the tip, instead they could be in your compost bin and the pulp in your freezer as delicious pumpkin soup.

The Jack-o’-lantern

by Florence Lind

Billy brought a pumpkin in

And Mother scraped it out.

Daddy carved a little mouth

With such a funny pout.

Sally cut some crooked eyes

And trimmed the thing with beads,

While everybody laughed at me

Because I saved the seeds.

But I will plant them in the spring

And wait till fall, and then –

I’ll have at least a hundred

Jack-o-l lantern men!!

The 2023 Woorilla Awards will be held on Sunday 19 November from 2-5pm at The Hub in Emerald.