Learning English and Other Cultures: Halloween
by Muireann Prendergast
Learning another language isn’t just about the new grammar and vocabulary, it’s also about getting to know the different customs, celebrations and festivities that people who speak it hold important. When I first came to Argentina in 2005, I had no idea about the festivals and public holidays respected in the country. To find out about these customs, I had to ask questions, investigate and even expand my vocabulary.
Students of English face the same challenges. I often find my classes fascinated by the things I hold important and celebrate as a person from a Celtic country. Chief amongst these festivals is Halloween, celebrated on October 31. If you have ever seen a face carved into an orange vegetable and wondered what that is about, read on.
Here are five questions you need to ask to get an understanding of what it is and why we celebrate what we do in English-speaking countries as well as some vocabulary to get you started in telling your friends about Halloween.
Question No. 1: What is the history behind the celebration?
Halloween originated in the Celtic feast of Samhain. Samhain, in old Irish, means the end of summer. Samhain, for the Celts, marked the end of one year and the start of the next.
The Celts believed that on Samhain, the gateway between this world and the next world (Otherworld) opened up to allow spirits to pass through. The word Halloween comes from the Scottish All-Hallows-Even (“evening”) meaning the evening before All Hallows (souls) Day. It was a time to ward off evil spirits while also trying to communicate with the souls of loved ones who had already died. During Samhain, the Celts dressed up in masks and costumes to trick the evil spirits that they too were spirits so that they would not do them harm.
Samhain, was also a time to stock up on supplies for the winter for The Celts. Livestock was killed and crops were stored for the cold months ahead. Large fires were lit during Samhain and the bones of the dead animals were burned on them.
Question No.2: Today, what customs are observed during the celebration?
Today, children dress up in masks and costumes in keeping with the Celtic tradition. They go from door-to-door trick-or-treating. This means they ask for candy (treat) or if none is given, they will carry out a bad deed to the person refusing the treat (a trick). Large turnips and pumpkins are also hollowed out and placed by a window with candles lit inside them to ward off evil spirits. Black and orange are the traditional Halloween colors. These colors symbolize the darkness of night as well as those of bonfires and the fall. Large bonfires are also lit as was the tradition in Celtic times.
Question No.3: What are the traditional foods eaten to mark the festival?
Due to the fact that Halloween coincides with the fall harvest, apples are eaten during Halloween. These are rolled in caramel and called toffee apples. Apples are also placed in water and blind-folded participants are challenged to pick them out with their teeth. Pumpkins are eaten on Halloween as pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread. There is a tradition in Ireland of eating a fruitcake called Barmbrack on Halloween with surprises hidden inside it like coins and a ring. The belief is that if you are the one to find the ring you will find your true love in the year ahead.
Question No.4: Is this festival celebrated in all Anglophone countries?
Halloween is mostly celebrated in Celtic countries of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. However, it is also a big festival in the United States and Canada because emigrants from Celtic speaking countries brought it to these countries.
Question No.5: Is this a Christian or a pagan festival?
Halloween has pagan roots and was originally a pagan or secular festival. However, some Christians take the idea that the Celts saw Halloween as marking the gateway between this world and the next world and the day before All Souls’ Day to mean that it has certain Christian elements also.
Here is some further English vocabulary to incorporate into English conversation on Halloween
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