Saturday, 29 October 2011

Halloween: an all-American tradition we've pointlessly adopted, right??

 
Halloween...kids begging to go door-knocking around the neighbourhood dressed in scary costumes in the hopes of bagging lollies...pumpkins carved into jack-o'-lanterns adorning the front of houses...the ever-present threat of trick before treat, & the stark reality of an egged house.  According to many mainstream Australian media sources (& likely your parents as you were growing up), Halloween is nothing more than a pointless American tradition infringing on the minds of Brisbane kids...isn't it??

If you subscribe to the word of your parents, then you'd be slightly correct...although only ever so slightly.

The history of Halloween rests on two contentious origins, however both seem to intertwine around the 8th Century.  One school of thought links the genesis to the Gaelic Harvest Festival known as Samhain, a practice born out of Ireland & parts of Scotland.  This festival, or feast, celebrated the end of the seasonal harvest & marked the onset of winter.  Over time, the festival evolved to additionally become a dedication to the dead -  ancestors were remembered & revered on the night & it became custom to set aside a place at the feast table for family members who had passed.  The second school of thought links Halloween's origin with the Christian celebration of All Saints' Day (also known as All Hallows Day), which occurs on the 1st of November each year.  In essence, the celebration involved a feast to pay spiritual homage to Saints both past & present whose souls are either being cleansed in Purgatory or who have already ascended to Heaven.

At Samhain, it was believed that the veil between this world & the next was at its weakest or most permeable - this allowed the spirits of deceased relatives to cross over the breach temporarily to visit living loved ones.  However, this rift also provided a doorway into the land of the living through which evil spirits could travel.  In order to ward off these unwanted souls and confuse their travels, it became custom for the living to wear costumes & masks.  Additionally, large turnips were gathered for the occasion & carved into lanterns to remember the souls held in Purgatory (over time, these lanterns evolved into the jack-o'-lantern).  In a similar vein, a custom practiced on All Saints' Day involved the production of small cakes known as soul cakes - each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory.  During the celebration, children & the poor would travel from door to door offering songs & prayers for the dead - in return, soul cakes would be offered as thanks (notice the similarity with modern-day trick-or-treating?).

So, let's jump forward a number of centuries.  After having reviewed the probable origins of Halloween, it comes as no surprise that the celebration was adopted in America given the large number of Irish & Scottish immigrants that helped to build that country in the early years.  However, we must also keep in mind that Australia's early population was predominantly Irish & Scottish.

On the 1st of November 1878, the Brisbane Courier reported, "Yesterday evening, October 31, would be known in Ireland and Scotland as "Halloween."  "The spirits" are then supposed to be abroad in any required number.  In the old land spirits of various kinds have managed to get up quite a reputation for "Halloween" performances.  But they do not seem to have made headway in Queensland.  With the exception of occasional parties of politicians in mumbling conclave as they moved along the streets, nothing very mysterious appeared in Brisbane last evening.  A few noisy spirits, however, took possession of certain new arrivals, but there were no "Halloween" peculiarities about them; they were simply acquiring their first, and, as we trust, their worst insight into colonial life.  In all other respects "Halloween" passed off unnoticed, as its many predecessors have done in Brisbane."

By the 1880's the Brisbane Caledonian Society (Scottish Association) was beginning to host annual Halloween celebrations, which gained particular momentum into the early years of the 1900's.  However, through the 1920's & 1930's Halloween saw a marked increase in popularity in Brisbane.  Many of the Irish & Scottish Halloween traditions were embraced for the yearly celebration, & there is no doubt that further nuances were likely adopted from America (in which country Halloween was also experiencing a new found resurgence).  The upper-class across the city rubbed shoulders at fancy Halloween balls - annual events were regularly held at Lennon's Hotel, the Lyceum Club & the Trocadero Dansant. Presbyterian Church groups throughout Brisbane held annual Halloween parties to raise money for building funds & charitable organisations.  The Church of England also held annual events, the 1932 party being documented in the Brisbane Courier - "Across the main entrance of the hall was erected a ladder, and on passing under it the guests entered a world of Hallowe'en superstition, with pumpkin faces, black cats, and a life-sized skeleton, occupying prominent positions."

In 1935, Mrs Forgan-Smith, wife of the then Queensland Premier William Forgan-Smith, took advantage of Halloween to hold a dance at the legendary (& sadly long since destroyed) Bellevue Hotel in order to raise funds for the Creche & Kindergarten Association.  The night was such a major success, £61 was raised for the organisation.   In 1936, after celebrations held by the Kedron & District Scottish Association, the Indooroopilly Scouts & Wild Cubs, the Methodist Ladies Church Guild, the State High School Past Pupils' Association and the Annerley Bowlers' Association, the Brisbane Courier reported, "A light orange moon, glowing in a misty sky, might have been designed especially for the occasion last evening, when numerous associations celebrated Hallowe'en with high revel.  Wild witches and gruesome ghosts, cauldrons bubbling with black magic, black cats, mournful bats, and the owls that hoot at midnight played their part in the eerie entertainment offered."

The popularity of Halloween in Brisbane continued through the late 1930's & early 1940's, no doubt bolstered by the large number of American servicemen moving through the city during the war years.  However, by the early 1950's interest in Halloween began to wane & continued to do so over the next 2 decades, with the result that Brisbane's affinity with the annual celebration earlier in the century was forgotten.  Over the past 30 years, the general consensus concerning Halloween pegs the festivity as being an fairly recent American tradition that has no real place in Australia...however you know now that this perception couldn't be further from the truth.  So, on Monday, use your best artistic flair to carve a pumpkin lantern for the front window & keep a supply of treats handy for trick-or-treaters - in doing so, you'll be paying reverence to the souls of the departed in a tradition that dates back over a 1000 years, & will be reviving a celebration that was being actively enjoyed by your grandparents in Brisbane almost a century ago!

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