Halloween is celebrated across the UK on 31st October. It used to be called All Hallows Eve; the day before All Saints Day, which is observed on 1st November. Halloween’s origins lie in the pagan festivals traditionally held at the end of October across the British Isles. The Samhain festival, observed on this day, was the most significant of the Celtic year, marking the beginning of winter. It was believed the people who had died in the previous year made their journey into the Otherworld; animals, fruits and vegetables were sacrificed and bonfires lit to aid the spirits on their way. People believed the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest on Samhain and so the spirits of dead people could return to walk among the living for one night a year. To ward off any spirits, people only ventured outside in spooky or ghostly costumes.
Today, as a result of this pagan tradition, many people in the UK host Halloween parties where guests are invited to dress up – usually as skeletons, ghosts, vampires or other scary figures. Many people also play apple bobbing, where a bucket filled with water and some apples. Players take it in turns to catch an apple between their teeth, with their hands held behind their back at all times. It’s great fun and you should give it a try if you have the chance. Traditionally the first person to catch an apple will be the next person to get married!
Other popular symbols of the festival include bats, spiders and pumpkins. People carve pumpkins which are lit by a candle inside and called Jack O’ Lanterns. The tradition stems from Irish folklore. The tale goes that a clever but lazy man called Jack was due to die on Halloween. When the devil came to collect his soul, Jack tricked him into turning himself into a shilling. Jack instantly grabbed the coin with his hand, which bore a cross-shaped scar, and trapped the devil inside. He only agreed to let the devil out if he granted him one more year of life. After returning one year later, the next Halloween, Jack tricked the devil again. This time it was into climbing into a tree which Jack then carved a cross on, trapping the devil inside. He only set the devil free after he agreed to give Jack ten more years of life. When Jack eventually died, St. Peter refused to grant him entry into heaven, as he had never performed a selfless act in his life and a seething Satan refused to claim his soul. The devil tossed a burning coal into a hollowed out pumpkin and he banished Jack to wander the world forever. You may spot his pumpkin on Halloween night!
Whatever you are doing, I hope you have a spectacularly spooky Halloween!
A guest post by David Heffer – a student ambassador helping in the International Office.