The origins of Halloween
Halloween, as we know it today, first emerged in Britain in the 8th century when Pope Gregory relocated the Christian celebration of the Saints, ‘All Hallows Feast’, from mid-May to the the 1st November, thereby assimilating the incumbent ‘Celtic Festival of the Dead’ to a related, but church-approved celebration. It wasn’t long before the preceding evening, ‘All Hallows Eve’, became known colloquially as Halloween.
Those 8th century festivities would be pretty much recognisable today. Turnip lanterns were placed on gateposts to protect homes from spirits who roamed the night, while groups of pagan pre-schoolers wandered the hamlet with their ‘punkies’, (amusingly carved root vegetables), singing the “Punkie Night Song”, knocking on doors and asking for money.
Halloween from Henry VIII to today
And so it carried on until the intervention of Henry VIII and the ‘Six Wives of Windsor’. Henry’s enthusiasm for wife-swapping (as in, new for old) sparked a split from Catholicism and initiated the Protestant Reformation of England. Reformists believed neither in the saints nor their All Hallows Feast thus, for the most part, England ceased celebrating Halloween.
The residents of Ireland and Scotland however carried on the tradition, taking it with them to the new world. About two hundred years later, through the mechanism of imported TV shows, the new world sent it back; and the zombie-fueled choc-fest we enjoy/endure today was born.
Halloween around the world
While Britain embraces the trick-or-treat version of Halloween, other countries continue to enjoy their traditional idiosyncratic quirks.
In Slovakia chairs are placed by the fireside, one for each living family member and one for each family member’s spirit. Germans put away knives so as to not accidentally harm returning spirits. In Sweden, companies close at lunch time, while the Friday before Halloween is a school holiday.
Throughout Latin America 31st October is known as ‘Dia de los Muertos, translated as ‘Day of The Dead’, which kicks-off a joyous three-day celebration of the continuous circle of life. Many families believe spirits of their ancestors make a short visit home, so construct altars decorated with flowers, photographs and samples of the deceased’s favorite foods. Loaves of ‘Bread of the Dead’ are distributed containing sugar skeletons, while towns and villages host Day of The Dead parades, attended by fancy-dress skeletons dancing in the streets.
Daniel Craig inspires Mexico City
Halloween celebrations are mostly based on long-held traditions. One modern exception is the spectacular Mexico City ‘Day of the Dead’ carnival which dates back as far as … 2016. To be exact, to the James Bond movie ‘Spectre’.
In the film’s opening scenes Bond chases a villain through swathes of dancers, parade floats, giant skeletons, marionettes and acrobats taking part in a stunning ‘Dia de los Muertos’ parade. A turmoil of music, fiesta, carnival and, as it transpires, Hollywood fantasy.
Because prior to this, none of that existed. The city’s celebrations were traditionally much more low-key affairs, involving quiet family gatherings at the graveside of loved ones. However, once millions of cinema goers in 67 countries had seen the movie, and assumed the parade to be genuine, the city authorities had no choice but to create a real celebration to match it.
They purchased a selection of film props, added some eccentricities of their own such as a phalanx of Aztec warriors on rollerblades, and the following year tens of thousands of visitors turned out to watch the Mexico City’s first James Bond inspired Day of The Dead parade.
As Enrique de la Madrid, Mexico’s Tourism Secretary put it, “Day of the Dead is always something that was always celebrated in Mexico City, though in a more serious way. It’s a deeply rooted tradition. All what we decided to do is … add a festival.”
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