Halloween, held on October 31 every year, is a celebration with ancient origins, but Australians have only caught up to it in recent years. Not every Australian is with 'it', of course. The haters come out every Halloween. They're the ones who denounce Halloween for being 'unAustralian', because you know, Halloween isn't as Australian as Christmas (which by the way is so 'Aussie' in spite of the fact that many of its traditions originated in pre-Christian Europe and its Christian origins began with a Jewish baby born in the Middle East. But I'll leave these arguments for another article!)
Like Christmas (and Easter), Halloween's origins lie in an agricultural, pre-Christian European past. Common tradition has it that it was the Celtic-speaking peoples of Ireland and Britain who celebrated a festival called Samhain which, under the Catholic church, became Halloween. Samhain was an agricultural festival, celebrating the end of the final harvest of the year and preparing for the long, cold, dark winter months ahead. It was also a time when the veil between our world and the spirit world was supposed to be at its thinnest, so ghosts and the spirits of ancestors and dead loved ones were able to cross over and walk the earth.
Unfortunately for the Halloween-haters, the popularity of Halloween is increasing in Australia. And because of its popularity, there are now many Halloween-themed events held during this time of the year. Here in Canberra, we have events like Boogong (a Googong community festival), Halloween kids' discos at Lollipops Playland and Monkey Mania, and 'Boo at the Zoo' at the National Zoo and Aquarium.
However, because Halloween is not so entrenched within our culture as it is in North America, for example, many of us don't really know how to celebrate it, and so we expect an event like Boogong to do the job for us. The problem with that, however, is that some of us get very disappointed when the event doesn't meet our expectations of how it should be or how we think it should be.
The good news, though, is that Halloween is actually very easy to celebrate, especially within our own homes and our own neighbourhoods. You don't need others to create the experience for you. Here are some ways how you can celebrate this freakishly fabulous festival:
1.Make your house spooktacular Get into the Halloween spirit by decorating your home. Because of its popularity, many shops now dedicate whole sections to Halloween in the weeks leading up to it. Costco, Big W, Woolworths, Coles, K-Mart, the Reject Shop, Aldi, Dusk, art and craft stores and bargain stores all sell Halloween-themed decorations for the home.
You can also find an old branch, stick it in a pot of sand to keep it steady, and hang mini Jack O Lanterns from it. I bought these plastic mini Jack O Lantern treat buckets from Coles.
The Jack O Lantern tree
Below is an example of how we decorated our fireplace for Halloween one year.
With some simple store-bought decorations (or the more elaborate Costco ones if you have the funds and want to go all out) plus your imagination and creativity, you can turn your home into a spooktacular one this Halloween.
2. Make a Jack O Lantern.
Perhaps the most well known symbol of Halloween today is the pumpkin with the eerie, hollowed out eyes and grinning mouth with light flickering inside.
Long ago throughout Ireland and Britain, lanterns carved out of vegetables such as turnips were carried by people on Halloween night or left on doorsteps to ward off evil spirits. But Irish immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used the larger, more available, and easier to carve a pumpkin for their lanterns. And this is why we have Jack O Lantern pumpkins, instead of Jack O Lantern turnips, today!
These lanterns (whether made out of pumpkins or turnips) are named after the jack-o-lantern, also known as will-o'-the-wisp, the strange, natural phenomenon of 'ghostly' lights flickering over peat bogs, swamps and marshes.
Today, supermarkets sell special pumpkins for carving during the lead up to Halloween, as well as special pumpkin carving tools. Pumpkin carving is such a fun activity for both young and old.
Alternatively, if you don't want to get your hands too dirty, or if you have kids who are much too young to carve pumpkins on their own, then the kids can decorate mini pumpkins (I bought these ones from Coles) and decorate them with stickers and glitter.
3. Go trick or treating.
Next to the Jack O Lantern pumpkin, going trick or treating is the most popular image we have today of Halloween.
Modern trick-or-treating can probably trace its origins back to the practice of souling in Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages. On All Hallows Eve (a Catholic celebration where we get the word Halloween from), children and poor people would go from door to door singing and saying prayers for the dead. In return they would receive 'soul cakes', a small round cake traditionally made for All Hallows' Day, November 1, the day after Halloween, also known as All Saints' Day, which is a Catholic festival.
Then there's guising, a tradition which was recorded in Scotland in 1895 where people dressed up in disguise on Halloween night, carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips and visiting homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money in exchange for a song, a poem, a joke or another 'trick.'
Trick or treating around the neighbourhood is a fun activity to do on Halloween night with the kids. But because Halloween is not an 'official' celebration in Australia, trick or treating can be a very unwelcome intrusion. There will be many people in your neighbourhood who will not appreciate having your kids bang on their doors demanding lollies! So if you want to go trick or treating, make sure you ask your neighbours first if it's ok. If your neighbours aren't pleasant sort of people and you hardly ever talk to them anyway, why not organize with your kids' friends' parents to drive to each other's houses for trick or treating? Don't forget to wear your Halloween costumes, and also make sure you have a box of lollies ready for any trick or treaters who come to your door.
I think trick or treating is a wonderful way to connect with your neighbours. On Halloween night, my son and I (and sometimes my husband if he gets home from work early enough) visit several of our neighbours for a reverse form of trick or treating. We actually hand out Halloween cupcakes and treats to our neighbours during our visits.
4. Throw a Halloween party.
Halloween is extra fun when you celebrate it with your friends so why not host a Halloween party? You can do this on the night of Halloween or in the days leading up to it. Decorate your house, get your friends to dress up in their scary best and bring along a plate of food to share, and get into some Halloween games and activities such as: carving pumpkins, bobbing for apples (a traditional Halloween game where you fill a tub of water with apples and every person takes it in turns to grab an apple from the tub with their mouths only and with their hands tied behind their backs - make sure you have towels handy as this is a very wet game!), and a Halloween-themed piñata.
My son had a Halloween party at our house with a small group of his little friends last year, and though they were too young to bob for apples, they made glitter pumpkins, made lots of Halloween-themed crafts, mixed magic potions (just mix vinegar with baking soda), enjoyed a treasure hunt in the backyard searching for 'eyeballs' (I purchased these online from Discount Party Supplies), took turns whacking a Jack O Lantern piñata, ate lots of yummy cupcakes and drank yummy 'spider cider' and 'bats' brew.'
5. Have a Halloween picnic in the woods.
For the last two Halloweens, a group of girlfriends and I have been celebrating with a picnic in the woods: at the Cork Oak Forest and the Himalayan Cedar Forest, both within the National Arboretum. It's a lovely time of the year for picnics in Canberra. Of course, you don't have to have your picnic in a forest, but I think the trees add a spooky feel to our Halloween picnic. And of course, we dress up for it, and bring a plate of Halloween themed goodies to share.
Our Halloween picnic theme this year is the Wizard of Oz, so if you happen to go to the Arboretum around Halloween time, follow the yellow brick road and keep an eye out for Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and a very scary zombie scarecrow. And don't forget to say hello!
6. Have a scary movie night.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with watching scary movies during Halloween. In fact, it's the perfect night to watch movies that frighten the bejesus out of you! So on Halloween night, why not get your family or friends together and get all your goosebumps tingling and the hairs on your back rising by watching some truly horrible movies together? There are plenty of movies out there to scare you senseless, such as the Halloween movies, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, The Exorcist, and The Ring. However, if these movies are just too scary for you or you have young kids, you could always watch films like the Harry Potter series, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Monsters Inc, Hotel Transylvania, The Addams Family, and Hocus Pocus.
7. Experience an escape room.
If you would like a truly unique experience during Halloween, then why not book an escape room adventure? An escape room is an immersive, interactive, physical adventure game where you and other players are placed in a specially designed room. Each room has its own individual theme and storyline. It has clues and puzzles which you need to find and solve together in order to get out, and you are given only one hour to escape.
Canberra has some perfectly creepy escape room experiences for Halloween including House on the Hill, an adventure set in Salem, Massachusetts, offered by Escape Rooms Canberra located in Phillip; and The Nightmare and The Hotel, both offered by Riddle Room in Mitchell. See my article on escape rooms in Canberra here for more information.
We're getting into the Halloween spirit for our escape room adventure!
8. Visit your loved ones who have passed away.
Because people long ago believed that Halloween was a time when ghosts and the spirits of dead loved ones crossed back into earth from the 'unseen' world, honouring the dead was a common practice. The Catholic church continued this practice over the centuries around Halloween time, especially on the two days after, on All Saints' Day (Nov 1) and All Souls' Day (Nov 2).
Today, in many countries around the world including the Philippines, Romania, Austria, Poland, Spain, Belgium, Mexico and Portugal, it is still a tradition to visit the graves of deceased relatives on All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.
If possible, why not visit the grave of a departed loved one, offer some flowers and light a candle during Halloween? Halloween is a beautiful time of the year when we can remember and honour our ancestors, and all of our loved ones who have died and gone before us.
9. And finally, have a spooktacular time at Boogong and dance at that Halloween disco.
I do think it's wonderful that as Halloween gets bigger and bigger in Australia, we have more and more Halloween events for the whole community. The organisers of these events put in a lot of effort to host them, so go and enjoy them!
Boogong, Halloween at Googong, will be held this year on Saturday, October 27 at Rockley Oval, Rockley Parade, Googong. More details to come so check here closer to the date. Boogong is a FREE event.
Halloween may not be 'Aussie' enough as Christmas trees and Easter eggs for the Halloween-haters, but I'm happy to see it becoming firmly established here in Australia-and it looks like it's going to stay for a long, long time.
And as for those who abhor it as a creepy festival for devil-worshippers, well, let me just say that I've been celebrating Halloween for almost twenty years now, and I haven't gone over to the dark side.
Not yet, anyway.
Happy Halloween, everyone!
When black cats prowl and pumpkins gleam, may luck be yours on Halloween