Monthly Archives: October 2009

To trick, treat or opt out? Australia and Halloween

Halloween is almost upon us.  On 31 October, thousands of children and adults around the world will don strange costumes and wander the streets.  Tricks will played, treats will be given …. but will Australians ever really embrace this day?

I LOVE Halloween and in one form or another have celebrated it all my life.  However, many in Australia do not.  Descriptions such as “glammed-up celebration of ghoulishness”, “over-commercialized clap trap”, “a celebration of lollies and terror”, “Americanization by stealth” all spring to mind.  So today when a friend from the United States asked me whether Australians celebrate Halloween like they do, I had to tell her that sadly, the short answer is no.  
Her question though, prompted me to write this post on why I believe it is a positive experience for kids and also my theory on the real reason it isn’t celebrated with much enthusiasm Down Under.

Samhain … All Hallows Eve … Halloween…

Australia’s ‘lack of uptake’ regarding Halloween is understandable if you look at its history and our geographic location.

Halloween can be traced back to Celtic and Gaelic times and a festival known as Samhain.  Then, it was an annual festival held to celebrate the end of summer’s bounty but also to prepare for the long, cold winter months to come.  It was believed that during Samhain, the ‘doors’ between the real and spirit worlds could be opened and as such evil spirits would walk the earth.  

So during Samhain, people dressed up like the very ghouls they feared and also carved lanterns (using root vegetables) in an attempt to scare the spirits and keep them at bay. Bonfires played a part.  They were lit as a way of disposing of the carcasses of slaughtered animals (whose meat would be consumed during the winter months) and were also used in ‘cleansing’ rituals.  

After time, the name Samhain was lost and the day became more widely known as All Hallows Eve and eventually, Halloween.

The U.S and all those pumpkins…..

It was the Irish who took the concept of Halloween to America during the 1840s as they fled the great famine in Ireland.  Since then the simple activities undertaken during the time of Samhain have morphed to become a full-blown day (and evening) of celebration, fun, baking, autumn craft activities, pumpkin carving & eating, community – all with a splash of mystery and mischief.   Many young children just love getting or giving a good scare!   Up to 65% of U.S. homes are decorated during Halloween.  And Canada doesn’t lag too far behind the U.S. in its enthusiasm for Halloween.

Australia and no pumpkins……

So why didn’t the Irish, who also came to Australia in droves during the mid-1800s, bring Halloween here?  Well, I’m sure they tried…

But Australia is, of course, in the southern hemisphere.  October 31 is half way through spring.  It’s a time of verdancy, growth, new life and warm days with impossibly blue skies.  Any evil spirit would be hard pressed to survive such joie de vivre.  Add to this that there would have been nary a pumpkin, gourd or tuberous vegetable in sight and the essence of Halloween would have inevitably suffered.  I imagine that it would have seemed just plain stupid to our early Irish settlers to perpetuate a part of their culture that bore no relation to the season and climate in which they now found themselves.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate aspects of Halloween now.

I am committed whenever possible, to supporting any activity that encourages children and parents to spend time outside, be it directly connecting with nature or taking a simple stroll around your suburb. Halloween gets a big tick on both these counts.

It’s like a giant street party, tempting our children to get out and about in their local community, greeting neighbours they may only see once a year.  It stimulates a connection with nature by default.  It affords the opportunity to talk to your kids about history, harvests, growing your own food, the celebration of bounty and the cycles of life.  And it is a great time to have a go at some nature craft activities.

So get outside on 31 October, control the sugar intake and enjoy all the positive things Halloween affords. 

Cheers and happy haunting!

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