Why do we celebrate Halloween

Here’s another post from Blue Badge Guide Ian Braisby, who is one half of the successful Birmingham Ghost Walks.

For most people, Halloween is a night when people (especially children) dress up as witches, ghosts or some other supernatural creature, attend parties and go “trick or treating”.  But where does this strange tradition and celebration come from?

Like most festivals we celebrate today its origins, timing and traditions are a mixture of influences from down the Centuries – Christian, pagan and modern.

There is no doubt that “Halloween” itself is a relatively modern invention, and has not been around for much more than a hundred years.  But the timing of Halloween has links to numerous other festivals.  Many ancient festivals occurred at this time of year, including the Roman harvest (Pomona) and the day for honouring ancestors (Parentalia), as well as the Celtic Samhain marking the transition between light and dark seasons.  In the Pagan belief system, this change of seasons was thought to be a time when the physical world and the spirit world were close together and could actually come into contact, which gave people a chance to contact the spirits of their forebears but also meant they needed to light fires and create charms to ward off malevolent spirits.  When Christianity became the dominant religion of Western Europe, a great effort was made to replace pagan festivals with Christian observances.  Christmas, Easter and many other religious holidays were deliberately set at the same times of year as existing celebrations to ease the transition and increase acceptance of the new religion.  In late Autumn, what we now call Halloween, the days involved with honouring ancestors were subsumed into the new festivals of All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd.  The former was a day celebrating the lives of saints who did not have their own dedicated feast day, while the latter was a day of prayer for all departed Christians.  A later English name for All Saints’ Day was All Hallows Day, which meant that 31st October, when the commemorations actually began, was All Hallows Eve (or E’en), which is where we get the modern word Halloween.  Until the later Middle Ages, many Christians believed (and were taught by the clergy) that the souls of the departed would wander the earth until the prayers of the faithful sent them to heaven, and could harm anyone who had been at odds with them during their lives.  So whether we look at it from a Christian or a pagan perspective, Halloween began as a time when people’s thoughts would turn to remembering the dead, and the desire to celebrate respected ancestors, while defending homes and lives against more harmful influences.

These origins are very much reflected in many of the modern-day Halloween activities too.  Let’s start with the costumes.  Both the pagan and Christian traditions involved elements of people donning costumes, and this was done for various reasons.  On a community level, the Celtic festivals involved people dressing up as hideous creatures to either represent or discourage the spirits that were around at that time of year, while in Christian churches, it was common to perform plays about the lives of saints to a largely illiterate congregation.  What both Christian and pagan traditions shared was that people would also want to disguise themselves on the day they were most vulnerable to wandering spirits, to confuse any that might wish them harm.  Over time, costumes evolved to become anything that people see as frightening or potentially harmful, such as witches, the devil, vampires or monsters from more modern literature and film.

If Halloween has a universal symbol, it is surely the pumpkin.  The use of something that came originally from North America reflects the fact that the modern form of Halloween largely came from the USA too.  The All Hallows festival was very popular among Christian communities in the early days of colonisation and, when merged with Celtic traditions that persisted among the many later Irish and Scottish immigrants, helped to shape the modern-day festivities.  But while pumpkins themelves originate in the Americas, carving out vegetables to have hideous faces and hold candles has been around since pagan times.  In fact, the traditional lights carried by costumed people involved in early Halloween rituals to help ward off evil spirits were exactly that, usually turnips in fact.  These lights became known in England as “jack o’lanterns”.  When America was settled, people simply substituted a locally grown vegetable, and the Halloween pumpkin as we know it today was born!  Around 99% of all pumpkins grown are used for carving into lanterns rather than for eating.

Trick or treating is probably the other most famous Halloween tradition.  It usually involves children in costume knocking on doors in their neighbourhood asking people “Trick or treat” – the idea originally being that if you did not give them a small gift, they would play some kind of trick on the householder instead.  These days, the choice element seems to have been pretty much eliminated and the expectation is that people will give treats, usually in the form of sweets.  Like other aspects of modern Halloween, trick or treat has a definite basis in the history of Christian and pagan festivals.  Firstly, we have the tradition of leaving an offering of food and drink for the spirits of our ancestors who are “visiting” at this time of year.  This is an important part of the Mexican Day of The Dead festival, which has close ties to Halloween, and to French Christian traditions involving taking food to the graves of relatives on All Hallows’ Eve.  In centuries gone by, people would also leave small food offerings outside their houses to pacify any less benevolent spirits and prevent them coming inside.  Trick or treating also appears to be linked to an old Christian tradition associated with this festival called “souling”.  This involved people (especially children) from poorer families going to the houses of wealthier members of the community asking for food, especially cakes (which became known as soul cakes), in return for them praying for the souls of the person’s family.  However, the practice also has strong connections to a later tradition, especially common in Northern England, called Mischief Night.  Although this usually happened on 4th November, it was all about children dressing up in costumes, especially witches and monsters, and playing tricks on their neighbours, which could sometimes be averted by giving them coins, cakes or the like.  It appears that at some stage, this might have become part of the slightly earlier All Hallows festival and mingled with the other traditions to create trick or treating in its modern form.

There are various other Halloween traditions that can also be traced back to the Roman harvest of Pomona (the goddess whose name gives us the French word for apple – “pomme”), such as apple bobbing (attempting to grab apples floating in a tub of water using only the teeth), or the belief that if a young woman put an apple under her pillow on this night, she would dream of her future husband.

It is clear that almost every aspect of Halloween as we know it today has its roots in a variety of festivals, practices and beliefs from many centuries ago – Celtic, Roman and Christian influences are very much in evidence in the modern festival.  These days, it’s essentially a fun night especially for children, a chance to dress in outlandish costumes, play games and enjoy treats.  But whatever you are doing this Halloween – taking the kids trick or treating in your neighbourhood, hosting a party, dressing up as a Disney witch, or telling ghost stories to try and scare your friends and family – it’s worth remembering that the original festivals, pagan and Christian, shared one important feature: at heart they were about remembering people whose lives shaped our world and ourselves, and protecting our families and communities from harm.  Happy Halloween!

American Independence Day – July 4th

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Widely considered to be one of the most famous sentences in the English language, these words form part of the opening to the American Declaration of Independence, which was formally adopted on 4th July 1776, a date that resonates with Americans and people around the world to this day.  It is the USA’s most important national holiday and sees huge celebrations throughout the country.

The reason the Declaration of Independence was so important is that it marked the establishment of the United States of America as an independent country, separate from the British Empire.  So when Americans celebrate 4th July each year, they are truly marking their nation’s birthday.

The original declaration was written and voted on amid the turmoil of the American Revolutionary War, which began in 1775, and it was signed by 56 political representatives, including two future Presidents.  Although largely self-governing on a day-to-day level for some time by the 1770s, the colonies were still controlled by the British government, and the imposition of high taxes on residents of the colonies with no representation in the British parliament was a source of huge anger and resentment.  Protests turned into political and diplomatic confrontation, which escalated into armed conflict.

But the Declaration of Independence was not just an expression of political rebellion.  It was a clear statement by the 13 colonies that they wanted more than just a renegotiation of their relationship with Britain, and actually considered themselves capable of becoming a country in their own right.  It was a massive declaration of confidence in their ability to create stable government and to take control of their own affairs with their developing economy and growing population.

At the same time, the opening lines of the famous Declaration show that the founding fathers of the United States intended their country to be one based on certain principles – namely freedom, tolerance and opportunity for all.  As a country that was growing by attracting immigrants from Britain and other European countries with the promise of a new life in the “land of opportunity” this message was a very important one to portray.  The new nation was keen to establish an identity far removed from the traditional, class-ridden monarchies of Europe, which were frequently torn apart by dynastic and religious conflicts that affected all levels of society.

Whatever you may think of the modern USA politically, culturally or economically, there is no doubt that the confidence and optimism expressed in the Declaration of Independence has shaped the country over the years since it was written and indeed they remain characteristics very much associated with its people.  Meanwhile, the fundamental rights enshrined in the declaration continue to be a source of huge national pride for American citizens to this day.

From the year after it was adopted, the date of the Declaration of Independence has been marked in the USA and celebrations on 4th July quickly became part of the new nation’s cultural identity.  For many years, federal employees had the option of taking the day as unpaid leave, but it has been an official federal holiday since 1938, which means that all non-essential institutions (such as the postal service and courts) are closed for the day.  There is a long tradition of politicians speaking at public gatherings on 4th July, with their words generally focusing on national pride, achievements and aspirations.

For the American people, the date is marked in all kinds of ways.  Because the event is so tied up with national identity, the flag – the stars and stripes – is an important symbol.  Its 13 stripes represent the original colonies that declared independence to create the country, while the 50 stars symbolise the 50 modern states.  Although the flag is widely flown throughout the year, much more than is the case in the UK for example, the 4th July is the day when you will see more US flags than at any other time.  Its red, white and blue colours (or should that be colors?) also feature prominently in festive decorations put up in homes and public places.

The fact that the holiday falls in summer means that most Independence Day events are held outdoors.  The most important public events tend to be parades and firework displays, with every town and city holding its own festivities for local people.  In 2013, the value of fireworks imported to the USA from China for 4th July was more than $200 million!  The parades and, particularly, firework displays tend to be accompanied by popular patriotic songs, including such traditional favourites as “America The Beautiful”, “God Bless America” and of course the national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner”.

As well as the public festivities, families traditionally get together for picnics and barbecues, or for baseball games.  Depending on the day of the week the 4th July falls on, the celebrations are either held on the day itself or on the nearest weekend.  Many Americans take advantage of the national holiday to take a long weekend break, to visit relatives in other parts of the country or as part of a longer holiday overseas.

For Americans living in other countries, organising Independence Day parties or events is one of the ways they maintain their cultural links to their homeland.  In major international cities with large American populations, such as London, there are quite large-scale celebrations to mark the day.  US companies in other parts of the world will generally hold celebrations for employees, while of course the date provides an excellent marketing opportunity for any US-themed bars, restaurants or other businesses!

With 4th July falling on the weekend this year, it is sure to be a huge day of festivities for all Americans around the world.  While the barbecues, fireworks and family gatherings are fantastically enjoyable and a great part of summer, I think it’s also very important that the national identity aspect of the date has never been lost.  The parades, the importance of the flag, the political speeches and the patriotic music are a reminder of how a nation that became one of the world’s leading powers in modern times actually began its journey.

Many thanks to Blue Badge Guide, Ian Braisby, for this post.

Chinese New Year

恭禧发财 – Happy Chinese New Year.

Today marks the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations of the Year or the Sheep (or the Goat if you prefer).

The Chinese year is based on lunar months (ie each month is 28 days because that’s how long it takes the moon to go round the earth) and so New Year’s Day in China falls on a different date each year. There are usually 12, but sometimes 13 months in a Chinese year. The first day of Chinese New Year will always be between 21st January and 21st February, and it coincides with the new moon.

New Year celebrations begin a couple of days beforehand, when people clean their houses from top to bottom to sweep away the old year. They never clear during the first two days of the New Year as this may sweep away the good luck that the New Year brings.

Family and food are both important in China, and on New Year’s Eve families get together for a special meal which includes fish and Chinese dumplings, both of which represent wealth.

Families decorate their houses in red (for luck) and gold (for wealth). Some popular decorations are lanterns, firecrackers and spring couplets. Firecrackers are also let off outside because the banging noise is believed to scare away the dragon Nian. Spring couplets are decorations which are placed either side of doorways. They are made of red paper, and have good wishes for the new year written in black ink. Each one usually has 4 Chinese characters on so that the couplet has 8 characters – 8 being a lucky number in China.

Children are given money in red envelopes, and tradition says that this will keep them healthy and give them a long life.

The public holiday lasts for the first three days, but the celebrations actually end 15 days later (coinciding with the full moon) with the Lantern Festival.

Related posts: The Chinese Zodiac     The Story of the Dragon Nian    The Lantern Festival

How do they celebrate Christmas in Australia?

This is a guest post from Ian Middleton.

I live in Sydney, and have had the last 5 Xmases here.

Pre Xmas, there are all the usual festivities, although Cities tend not to put up lights, just massive artificial trees. We attend carols by candlelight, which attracts thousands at the big shows, and is outdoors in both Sydney and Melbourne. We attend in our suburb, and we take a picnic and wine, and sit down by the harbour and have a lovely evening.

On the day itself, we are usually up at 5:30, because the sun is beaming through the window. Then a coffee, and down to the beach for a Xmas day dip! Tradition! All the surfers do wear Santa outfits whilst surfing, or the bodies beautiful wear Santa swim shorts or bikinis!

Presents opening in the morning……

Lunch is a mixed bag! Turkey is still a tradition for many, and the supermarkets stock sprouts!! There is stuffing mix and cranberry sauce, brandy custard etc. although many do opt for seafood for at least part of lunch! They buy prawns by the box load, and Sydney fish market is a nightmare a couple of days before……..

Then it’s all about family, and there are many phone calls in the early evening to loved ones in Europe, as their day begins!!!

I have to say, it has rained every Xmas Day I have been here! About 4 the clouds roll in and it cools down a bit etc.

Boxing Day here is famous for 2 things: The Boxing Day Test in Melbourne (100,000 people watching cricket) and the Sydney- Hobart yacht race!!

Then everyone is on holiday until after new Year – massive here in Sydney with 1m plus people Harbourside and alcohol free for fireworks – which are spectacular!!!!

St Patrick’s Day

Tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, and here with a post about the day and why we celebrate it, is my lovely husband Ian, who works as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Around the world, 17th March is one of the year’s biggest celebrations, and it’s all thanks to the Irish.  The day is their most important national festival and it’s a time for everyone (Irish or not) to dress in green, get together, sing, dance and, of course, enjoy a pint of Guinness.  But although the modern celebration is known as a huge party with everyone invited, its origins, as the name suggests, are religious.  It is the traditional feast day of Ireland’s Patron Saint and for centuries was a day of prayer and contemplation.

So who was St Patrick and why was he important?  Like many early saints, his origins are somewhat obscure and clouded in legend, but it is generally accepted that Patrick lived in the 4th to 5th Centuries AD and was born in Britain, with modern Scotland the most likely location.  Most stories of his life tell us that he first went to Ireland after being captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16.  During his captivity, he became a Christian and studied to become a Priest after he escaped back to Britain.  Returning to Ireland as a missionary, he played a major part in strengthening and expanding the Christian community in the country and became one of Ireland’s first bishops.

Out of all the legends associated with him, there are two that are particularly famous.  The first is that he used the three leaves of the shamrock, a common plant in Ireland, to teach people about the Christian holy trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The idea was one plant but three distinct leaves, just like one god with three distinct forms.  The shamrock became one of the symbols associated with Saint Patrick, and as his importance as a revered figure in Ireland grew, the emblem was adopted by the country itself, which it remains to this day.  The plant’s green colour also became recognised as the national colour of Ireland.  The second legend is more of a myth, namely that Saint Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland.  While it is true that there are no snakes native to the country, scientists are fairly certain that this was the case many thousands of years before Saint Patrick stepped ashore.  The story is more likely to symbolise his missionary work, bringing a new faith and strengthening the Christian church, banishing “primitive” beliefs and helping people feel more secure in their community.

After his death, Patrick was venerated as a Saint by Irish Christians, although this status was not officially confirmed for many centuries.  His feast day, which falls on the date of his death, was set aside to remember his life and works.  Over time, especially as Ireland became politically and culturally dominated by Britain, Saint Patrick took on a different status, as a symbol of the Irish nation and traditions, and this was really how his feast day started to become secularised as it is today.  Celebrations that we recognise today – parades, festivals of music and dance, wearing the shamrock symbol – increasingly established themselves.

These days, the day is essentially about celebrating Irish identity, and has been strengthened as Irish people have migrated throughout the world, taking their culture, traditions and festivals with them.  While Dublin has the largest St Patrick’s Day festivities in the world, next come New York and Birmingham, as Irish immigrant communities everywhere have ensured that the day is marked in style.  It is not a public holiday, so the major events generally take place on the closest weekend to 17th March.  Cynics might say the date has become little more than a marketing tool for Guinness and other Irish drinks manufacturers, but there is no doubting the joy and pride that is so obviously on display wherever Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated. And the best thing of all – you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy it.

Related posts: St Andrew’s Day,   St David’s Day,   St George’s Day