Double, double toil and trouble

SISTERS AROUND THE WORLD, October 2008, Karen Demers

“Double, double
toil and trouble;

fire burn and cauldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, in the cauldron boil and bake; eye of newt, and toe of frog**”

cauldronWhoa, wait a minute!
This isn’t the kind of treat I want on Halloween. This is a time for delicious chocolates and candies, spooky stories and crazy costumes – or is it? Where did Halloween traditions originate? Do our Sisters Around the World go trick-or-treating? Let’s find out! (**Shakespeare’s Macbeth Act IV, scene i)


Halloween is one of the world’s oldest holidays originating from an old Celtic tradition 2000 years ago. The Celtic New Year was celebrated throughout the night of October 31st as it began on November 1st. This tradition was called Samhain (sow-in). It marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter, often associated with cold, darkness and death! The Celtics dressed in costumes and danced around huge bonfires which were used to burn old crops while keeping them warm throughout the coming cold nights. When the Romans conquered the Celtics and changed some of their traditions, November 1st became All Saints Day and November 2nd was All Soul’s Day. To keep the Celtics happy, October 31st maintained the meaning of Samhain. Now here’s the cool part of this story...  during this time, people spoke Middle English and in this language, ‘All Saints Day’ translates to ‘All-Hallows’ and October 31st was called All-Hallows Eve.  Can you see where this is going?!?!  That’s right - Halloween!

Halloween was first brought to North America by European immigrants. The trick-or-treating part came from an English tradition called ‘souling’. People would go door to door begging for ‘soul cakes’ and for each one received, a prayer was said for those who had passed.

In some parts of Europe, Catholics celebrate ‘Seleenwoche’ or ‘All Souls Week’ from Oct. 30 - Nov. 8th. During this holiday, in Austria, lamps are lit and bread and water are left out to welcome souls back to earth. In Germany, people put away their kitchen knives so returning spirits don’t hurt themselves! In Czechoslovakia, families place chairs at the fireplace – one for each family member alive and one for those who have passed.

Halloween as we know it is also practiced in most parts of the United Kingdom including Ireland. However, in the past, English children made ‘punkies’ - carved lighted turnips - and went door to door asking for money, singing ‘The Punky Night Song’. In some parts of England, punkies are still made and children often compete to carve the best punky. In Sweden, ‘Alla Helgons Day’ is celebrated on the first Saturday that falls after Halloween. Families make wreaths and light candles at grave sites to honour those that have passed.

In Hong Kong, they celebrate ‘Yue Lan’ or ‘Festival of the Hungry Ghost’. It is believed that spirits roam the earth for 24 hours so to bring comfort to them, pictures of fruit and money are burned. In Japan, the ‘Obon Festival’ celebrates the return of their ancestor’s spirits to their birthplace. The Japanese prepare special foods and hang bright red lanterns to guide them to their families. At the end of the festival, the red lanterns are set afloat in the water. This is a very important tradition for the Japanese and seen as a time to reunite with their families. 

Mexico, Latin America and Spain
Halloween is called ‘El Dia de los Muertos’; a 3 day celebration to honour the dead. It is believed that during this time, spirits return home. To honour the dead, families decorate their houses with flowers, candies, food, and photographs. There are often costume parades, mariachi bands and vigils. Interestingly, this holiday is not only about death but life too. It is a time of individual reflection on the meaning of life and goals.

It would seem that for most of our sisters around the world,
Halloween is not about spooky stories, costumes or treats, but is in fact a time to celebrate and honour those that have passed. No matter what you believe or practice, Halloween is always a time of celebration, food and fun!

~ Karen

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