Why Halloween is the new black

Next week sees 31 October-Halloween! The last stop before Christmas takes over at supermarkets and our lives. But if, like me, you're a little over 21 (ahem!), you're probably wondering how Halloween got to be so big in the UK. As a kid I remember a bit of trick and treating, mainly consisting of children lobbing a few rotten eggs at the door of anyone foolish enough not to have stopped up on Bazooka Joes, Blackjacks and Fruit Salads, (youngsters, ask your parents!)

Nowadays as soon as the suntan cream disappears from the shelves, it is replaced with an array of costumes, plastic creepy crawlies and broomsticks. And everyone seems to be driving out to pumpkin farms and carving this suddenly ubiquitous vegetable into versions of Hogwarts and the entire Harry Potter cast.

So how did this all start?

Much as we love to blame our cousins across the Atlantic, the truth is that the festival of Halloween originated the side of the world.

Halloween, or 'Hallowe'en', is a contraction of All Hallows Eve, and is observed on the eve of All Hallows day - the Christian feast day when we traditionally remember the dead, including saints (hallows) and martyrs. On this day, the departed souls are thought to be active and walking amongst us. In mainland Europe it is believed that on Halloween, 'The dead of the churchyards rose for one wild hideous carnival', known as the Danse Macabre, often depicted in church decoration and celebrated in the musical composition by French composer Saint-Saens.

Today's Halloween practices are thought to be influenced by folk customs from the Celtic speaking countries, which passed to North America with the spread of colonists, despite strong opposition from the puritans of new England who saw it as a pagan festival. It subsequently became a major holiday in North America with the mass Irish and Scottish immigration of the 19th century.

'Trick or treat' is the traditional threat from children dressed in scary costumes, roaming the streets on Halloween. To avoid a 'trick' being played on them, intimidated adults hand over 'treats' usually in the form of chocolate or sweets. In Ireland and Scotland, the practice of children going to door-to-door in disguise is called 'guising'. The children are only supposed to receive treats if they perform a party trick, such as singing a song, or reciting a joke or funny poem. In America this evolved into the shriek of 'trick or treat' that is now associated with Halloween.

The practice of dressing up, or 'guising', is thought in some parts of the world to have originated in fear. With the souls of the departed believed to be wandering the Earth until All Saints day, All Hallows Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance. In order to avoid being recognised by any soul seeking revenge, people would don masks and costumes to disguise their identity.

Pumpkins are of course the other popular symbol of Halloween, particularly in the form of the jack-O'-lantern, carved usually to represent a comic or scary face.

According to Irish folk tale the jack-o'-lanterns is said to represent a sinful soul who has been refused entry into both heaven and hell. Having struck a deal with the devil that he can never claim his soul, on his death Jack is refused entry into heaven due to his sins. Keeping his promise, Satan refuses to let Jack into hell, and throws a coal from the fires of hell at him, which Jack places into a hollowed-out turnip to keep it from going out, to keep him warm. Ever since which, he has been roaming with his lantern looking for a place to rest.

Elsewhere, it is suggested the carved turnips or pumpkins represented the souls of the dead, or that they are lit to ward off evil spirits. Traditionally candles or fires are lit and lights left burning in windows, to guide the souls on their way and deflect them from haunting honest Christian folk.

Over time, the turnip has become replaced by the pumpkin which is native to North America, and the flesh of the carved pumpkin is used in soup or pumpkin pie, which is traditional for the American holiday of Thanksgiving in November.

So back to the question of how we went from a few home-made costumes and a bit of apple bobbing, to the major event that it is today. It is no surprise that we have our American cousins to thank for doing what they do best - taking our quaint pagan customs and dressing them up with American exuberance, sending it back to us via Hollywood and our reluctant obsession with all things American.

If you want to escape from Halloween trick or treaters, why not come and stay with us here at the Flackley Ash hotel in Rye, and explore the autumnal beauty of this charming medieval town.