The history of Halloween and how we celebrate it

by Savannah Ingham


The cat and a colour palette of orange and black that have become synonymous with Halloween. Photo: Saso Tusar via Unsplash.

So Spooky Season 2020 has come and gone… at least that’s what we’re told. This is signalled through the traditions and symbols that we associate with the contemporary Halloween: carved pumpkins, trick-or-treating (thought by some to have been popularised in America to bribe young troublemakers not to vandalise houses), creepy costumes, luscious autumn colours and, of course, a whole host of spirits, ghouls and monsters. All of this certainly appeals to our thirst for aesthetically-stylised terror. Anyway, why do we celebrate October 31st? What is the origin of Halloween? Has it lost its original meaning and is it even culturally relevant in a South African context?


Halloween has its roots firmly planted in the ancient, Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced as sauin) which marked the end of the harvest season in Europe. It was considered to be a time to show gratitude for a successful harvest and to get in touch with the spirits of those who had passed before you as it was also considered to be a period when the veil (or barrier) between the realm of the living and the realm of spirits lifted. Samhain is thought to have been celebrated on October 31, and this date carried over into the celebration of Halloween.


Why October 31? Well, it just so happens that the annual celebration to honour the end of the harvest season coincided with the newly declared All Saints Day on November 1. Many Samhain festival traditions were incorporated in this day and the night before became known as All Hallows’ Eve, eventually becoming Halloween.


A luminescent Halloween alter. Photo: Elena Mozhvilo via Unsplash.

After invasion, Christian influence over the indigenous Celts resulted in a merging of these beliefs with All Saints Day (celebration of saints), resulting in the creation of All Souls Day (remembrance of the dead). Over time, the Halloween that we recognise today began to take form and was popularised in America. Samhain is still observed by some practitioners who take inspiration from Celtic folklore.


Halloween has become more widely observed in South Africa in recent years. There are numerous festivals dedicated to it that have started popping up. It is not uncommon to see businesses (especially restaurants and other entertainment venues) integrating Halloween themes into their services around this time of year. The assimilation of cultural content from America (where Halloween is extremely popular) through globalised media into the South African consciousness is probably responsible for this.


Although many of us may not be fully aware of why we celebrate Halloween, we do see the potential to capitalise on the occasion through the sale of Halloween-themed products and content (costumes, sweets and movies, for example). In this way, Halloween probably has more value as an occasion for consumerism than as a cultural event in society, at least in South Africa.

Carved pumpkin heads have become mandatory Halloween decor. Photo: Daniel Lincoln via Unsplash. 

Despite the capitalistic gains that come with embracing death… I mean, Halloween is still not a particularly significant event in our country. You may have noticed, our harvest season does not even “fall” during October and I doubt that many people care much about the spirits and ancestors that were so important in the lives of ancient Celts. 


Trick-or-treating (apparently a remnant tradition from when food was served and given as offerings during Samhain and All Saints Day) would be challenging in a country where you cannot even take your phone out in a public place or let your children go out unattended. South Africa is also a religiously diverse and widely conservative country; many people would see the highlighting of “darker” aspects of life that comes along with Halloween as an evil that is to be avoided and denounced.


Locally, there are many indigenous events/ceremonies celebrating harvest such as the annual harvest festival known as Incwala in eSwatini that takes place during the period around the last week of December and the first week of January.  It can be loosely translated as ‘first-fruits festival’ and is a time of cleansing and renewal. 


Acknowledgement of the dead is also widely practiced in South Africa through ancestral communication and worship. There is no specific day on which the dead are celebrated, as it is a deeply personal practice that is integrated into many aspects of people’s lives throughout the year.


With little to no cultural (social and spiritual) incentives to mark out October 31st specifically on the South African calendar, it seems that the reasons that we have left for celebrating the day lie in the fun to be had in the aesthetic and consumerist attractions of the modern Halloween. Parties and festivals where people dress up in elaborate, exciting costumes while socialising with their friends around kitsch-y decorations and deathly-desserts have become increasingly popular in some of the more affluent areas of the country. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this; it’s some harmless fun and it gives us something to plan and look forward to. However, it is important to take time to acknowledge the cultural roots of this holiday in the midst of capitalistic festivities. So for next Halloween, don’t forget to spare some thoughts for your ancestors and have fun.




Sources:


  • Bogopa,D.2010. “Health and Ancestors: The Case of South Africa and Beyond”. Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology 10(1): 1-7. 

  • Ross,E. 2010. “Inaugural lecture: African spirituality, ethics and traditional healing – implications for indigenous South African social work education and practice”.

  • Department of Social Work, School of Human and Community Development, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg 3(1): 44-51.




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