HISTORY OF HALLOWEEN

“We look at the origins of the calendar’s spookiest day”

So what is Halloween’s history? Well, contrary to what a lot of people believe, Halloween isn’t traditionally an American custom, although our US friends have certainly adopted it as their own. The origins of Halloween date all the way back to the ancient Celtic, some say pagan, festival of Samhain, held in an area that is now known as Ireland. More than 2000 years ago, people would celebrate this harvest festival by lighting bonfires and dressing up in costumes to ward off ghosts and evil spirits.

It’s suggested that the costume custom also perhaps came from a darker source in history:  that the people who lived in those times were deeply superstitious and afraid of the dark and the entities that were said to be walking the earth. They’d often wear costumes and disguises so the ghosts would mistake them for other spirits and leave them alone.

Later in the 8th Century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as All Saints Day which incorporated some of the traditions which had their origins in Samhain.

The evening before All Saints Day became known as All Hallows Eve, and over time, we came to know it as Halloween.

Why celebrate Halloween in Australia?

Well, this is an easy one. It’s fun! Those who whinge that Australia is just giving in to US commercialism by celebrating Halloween – well, you don’t hear them saying we should ban McDonald’s, Starbucks or Apple. In fact, Halloween isn’t a new arrival into Australian culture either: Irish immigrants also brought the tradition with them when they settled here in the 1800s.

According to Hallozween magazine columnist and Halloween historian Mark Oxbrow, Halloween has been celebrated in Australia longer than you may think!

He writes: Was it celebrated here before the founding of either the NRL or AFL? Was it here before the Sydney Harbour Bridge? Did people dress up for Halloween in Australia before Federation? 

Here are the facts – Aussie rules was first played in Melbourne in 1859; NRL was founded in 1997; the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in 1932 and Federation was in 1901.

And Halloween? It was first celebrated in Australia in Castlemaine, Victoria, in October 1858. 

Halloween had its origins in Scotland and Ireland thousands of years ago as the festival of Samhuinn – marking summer’s end. When the Scots emigrated to America during the Highland Clearances, they took their Halloween traditions with them. When the Irish left their homes behind because of the potato famine, they carried their Halloween superstitions over the seas.

Scots arrived in Australia with the First Fleet but it wasn’t until the Australian gold rush that newspaper reports appeared as written evidence of the Scots’ Halloween Balls.  

On Friday, October 29 in 1858, the ‘puddlers’ of Forest Creek presented the Castlemaine Select Scottish Ball celebrating Halloween at Red Hill Hotel. Tickets admitted one gentleman and two ladies. 

‘Puddlers’ were named after the puddling machines first developed in the Victorian goldfields that sped up processing of clay to find gold. 

Halloween has always been an uncanny time. The veil is thin between the mortal world and the supernatural realm of the faeries and the dead. Caledonian Societies across Australia held grand balls each year to mark Halloween. 

They decorated halls and hotels with black and orange streamers, paper bats, black cats, ghosts and witches’ hats. They dressed up in kilts and costumes and held dances and dinners. Bagpipes were played. Haggis was served. Folk recited Robert Burns poems. 

Burns Clubs were hugely popular with Scottish emigrants the world over. You’ll find bronze statues of Robert Burns in Camperdown, Ballarat, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. Bendigo has a bust of Burns. 

Two particular Burns poems were popular at Halloween Balls in Australia; Hallowe’en and Tam O’ Shanter. Hallowe’en gathers all kinds of fortune-telling traditions that Burns knew from his childhood in Ayrshire. 

In Tam O’ Shanter, a farmer named Tam staggers out of an epic drinking session in a tavern and stupidly rides home past a haunted churchyard. Tam sees a witches’ dance with corpses bearing candles and the devil playing the pipes. 

Halloween balls and revels appeared across Australia, from Alice Springs and Parap in the Northern Territory to Launceston in Tasmania. You’d find Halloween celebrations in every state including Rockhampton, Brisbane and Cairns in Queensland; Adelaide, Mount Gambier and Balaklava in South Australia; Bendigo, Melbourne, Williamstown, Sunshine and Dandenong in Victoria; Kalgoorlie, Perth, Fremantle and Dangin in Western Australia; and Broken Hill, Glen Innes, Lithgow and Lismore in New South Wales. 

Halloween Balls remained popular across Australia into the 20th Century. In 1937 in Mudgee, there was a grand Halloween Ball held in the Mechanics Institute Hall. This was a masked ball with a prize of half a guinea for the best costume. A witch was advertised and a real Scots ‘spaewife’ – a fortune teller – would read your future. The advert reads: “Midnight is the hour of mystic spell and weird enchantment when ‘ghaists and bogles’ are about.”

World War II saw American GIs arrive in Australia. They chewed gum, played basketball, danced the jitterbug and brought their own version of Halloween celebrations. But it’s American movies and TV shows that have made most Australians think that Halloween is a recent import from the USA. 

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Mean Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Friends, The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror, Brooklyn 99, John Carpenter’s Halloween, Stranger Things and Halloweentown are just a few of the US Halloween TV and movie imports you might have seen. 

But Halloween is not some American thing that only arrived in Australia a handful of years ago. Halloween has been celebrated in Australia for more than 160 years; before Australia became a nation, before Waltzing Matilda was written, before Vegemite and thongs, before Ugg Boots and Mad Max, AC/DC and Kylie, and before the first Aussie Rules football was kicked. 

Sure, it’s taken us a lot longer to embrace it than the Americans, but more and more people are starting to realise that Halloween is a fun celebration that the whole family can take part in.

You can get to know your neighbours and wider community through well organised, and of course, fully supervised, trick or treating events and what kid (or adult!) doesn’t like to dress up in a cool costume?!

They don’t have to be horror themed either … you can go as a superhero, a TV or movie character or a famous person in history. Heck, you could even go as your next door neighbour or boss if you wanted to – it’s all about having fun! And well, the lollies too 😉

Mark Oxbrow is an author and storyteller. Originally from Scotland but now living in Sydney, Mark founded the Samhuinn Festival in Edinburgh and Spooky Family Fun Night in Little Blaxland School in the Blue Mountains.

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