More than candy – the real history of Halloween

Today is Halloween. I wrote this post a couple of years ago and thought I might repost it today, for anyone interested.

Seeing as I’m a writer of all things macabre and occult (among other things) I thought I’d celebrate Halloween by posting on what Halloween is really all about. Of course, I can only scratch the surface in the limited arena of a blog post, but I’ll give it a go. So many people think that Halloween is basically a dress up party where kids forget all about pedophiles for one evening and walk around in the dark accepting candy from complete strangers. In some ways that’s actually the scariest thing about Halloween nowadays.

Samhain - pic from Hecatescauldron.orgHowever, let’s look at the history. Halloween is an annual holiday celebrated on October 31st. The name comes from a shortening of All Hallows’ Evening, which is in reference to a Christian tradition, though Halloween is actually the Celtic festival of Samhain. Solemnity of All Saints Day, also called All Hallows, is celebrated on 1st November in Western Christianity. It’s a day that commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. Basically it has nothing really to do with Samhain, but you know those Christians and their love of co-opting Pagan holidays. Popes during the eighth century actually moved the Christian holiday of All Saints Day from May 13th to November 1st to rope in those pesky Pagans. Later, around 1000CE, the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. All three days (All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints (Hallows) Day and All Soul’s Day) were called Hallowmas.

Ironically, it’s so often the Christians who complain about the Satanic overtones of Halloween (when they have no idea what they’re talking about) and the very next day they’ll celebrate the dead, and mysterious otherworlds like this Heaven they’re always on about. Come on Christians, is a teeny, tiny bit of consistency really too much to ask? Actually, of course it is. Have you read the bible? But I digress.

So Halloween has origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain. The name is from Gaelic meaning “summer’s end”. While the festival had its roots in Ireland and Scotland, it was celebrated throughout the region by most Celts, often considered to be the Celtic New Year. Samhain is a celebration of the end of the long summer days and the start of the long winter nights. This is the beginning of the dark and scary overtones of the festival. The other side of the scariness comes from the belief among the Celts that the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead were at their weakest on Samhain. That meant that all kinds of spirits (benevolent and malevolent) could slip through from the Otherworld to our world on that night. For this reason, good spirits (particularly family ancestors, dead elders and so on) were honoured and celebrated while all kinds of measures were taken to ward off evil spirits. (Some people think that the habit of wearing costumes on Halloween comes from this desire to ward off the evil spirits, as people would dress as those spirits in order to disguise themselves and avoid harm. This is not something that’s universally accepted, however.)

Also during Samhain, people would stockpile food for the winter, slaughter livestock and cure the meat and so on. The preparation for the long, cold European winter was something to take very seriously. It still is, actually, but central heating makes a mockery of old man Winter nowadays.

Pic from www.hauntedbay.comAlso during Samhain, because the veil between our world and the Otherworld was so thin, it was a prime time for Druids to step up and make their prophecies. A lot of divination was undertaken during Samhain. People would build huge bonfires and burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the various Celtic gods that the Druids invoked. The Druids would then pass on their divinations, mainly giving the people some hope for the future while faced with a long, bleak, cold and hungry winter.

One other tradition that I really like from Samhain was that of sharing fire. The massive bonfire would be lit, Druids would do their thing and everyone would party around it. During this time, all the fires in peoples’ homes would be put out. On returning home people would take a brand from the huge bonfire and relight their hearth with it, so everyone had a bit of the same blessed Samhain fire in their house at the start of the dark half of the year. There’s something delicious about that tradition.

The Christians, however, weren’t the first to take a piece of Samhain. The Romans got in there first. In late October the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead in a tradition called Feralia. They also had a day to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. These were wrapped in with the various Celtic traditions around Samhain, then the Christians came along and added their Saints and Souls days and the whole thing blurred together. Now we get precocious little snots throwing eggs at your house if you don’t give them sweets for dressing like little tits. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s all fun and games for the little kiddies, but let’s at least try to educate them on why they’re doing this stuff. Regardless, I think that Halloween is one of my favourite traditional holidays, when viewed from its historically accurate perspective. Not the Americanisation of it, with it’s costumes and children extorting sugar from their neighbours, but the real ideas of Halloween. I love the concepts, the darkness descending for another winter, the spirits slipping through from the Otherworld, giant bonfires and Druids seeking some knowledge of the future. Come on, isn’t all that so much better than hassling old Mrs Jenkins for a jelly snake with a sheet over your head? Unfortunately, now that I live in Australia, Halloween falls at the beginning of summer rather than the beginning of winter, but that’s life underneath for you.

What are your plans for Halloween? I might slaughter a lamb…


2011 World Fantasy Awards and Lifetime Achievement Winners

The winners of the 2011 World Fantasy Awards and Lifetime Achievement Winners have been announced:

BEST NOVEL: Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)

BEST NOVELLA: “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon”, Elizabeth Hand (Stories: All-New Tales)

BEST SHORT FICTION: “Fossil-Figures”, Joyce Carol Oates (Stories: All-New Tales)

BEST ANTHOLOGY: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, Kate Bernheimer, ed. (Penguin)

BEST COLLECTION: What I Didn’t See and Other Stories, Karen Joy Fowler (Small Beer)

BEST ARTIST: Kinuko Y. Craft

SPECIAL AWARD, PROFESSIONAL: Marc Gascoigne, for Angry Robot

SPECIAL AWARD, NON-PROFESSIONAL: Alisa Krasnostein, for Twelfth Planet Press

Congrats to all the winners and nominees.


Murky Depths magazine is no more

Murky Depths 16I’m very sad to report that Murky Depths, the UK dark fiction magazine, has gone under. Here’s the relevant post from the publisher, Terry Martin. It’s a bloody shame, because Murky Depths was a consistently good magazine, with great fiction and articles, awesome illustrations and so much more. It took out the British Fantasy Award (last year, I think) and was always well reviewed. But it couldn’t stand against the tide of financial crises, e-publishing and so on.

I’m very proud to have had a story in Murky Depths while it was still going – my yarn, Mirrorwalk, is in issue 16 (pictured above). And, as the blog post I linked points out:

While Murky Depths, the anthology magazine, may be no more, it’s far from dead and The House of Murky Depths is to continue publishing paperbacks and graphic novels using the experience it has gained over the last five years. Murky Depths is dead. Long live Murky Depths.

You can still buy back-issues of the magazine until they’re sold out, so go to the site and get shopping.

Vale, Murky Depths magazine, and many thanks Terry Martin!


Anywhere But Earth has landed

Anywhere But EarthI’m very proud to have a story in this fantastic anthology from editor extraordinaire Keith Stevenson. Here’s the blurb:

Twenty-nine all new science fiction stories of humanity’s adventures out there, anywhere but Earth. Featuring original works by Margo Lanagan, Sean McMullen, Richard Harland and Kim Westwood among a galaxy of new and established Australian and overseas speculative fiction authors.

‘Keith Stevenson has done it again. Sit down, buckle up, you’re heading off world now – trust me, it’s going to hurt, but you won’t regret it.’
Trent Jamieson, award-winning author of the Death Works and The Nightbound Land series.

Calie Voorhis ‘Murmer’, Cat Sparks ‘Beautiful’, Simon Petrie ‘Hatchway’, Lee Battersby ‘At the End There Was a Man’, Alan Baxter ‘Unexpected Launch’, Richard Harland ‘An Exhibition of the Plague’, Robert N Stephenson ‘Rains of la Strange’, Liz Argall ‘Maia Blue is Going Home’, Chris McMahon ‘Memories of Mars’, CJ Paget ‘Pink Ice in the Jovian Rings’, Penelope Love ‘SIBO’, Donna Maree Hanson ‘Beneath the Floating City’, Erin E Stocks ‘Lisse’, William RD Wood ‘Deuteronomy’, Robert Hood ‘Desert Madonna’, Steve de Beer ‘Psi World’, Damon Shaw ‘Continuity’, Wendy Waring ‘Alien Tears’, Patty Jansen ‘Poor Man’s Travel’, Jason Fischer ‘Eating Gnashdal’, Kim Westwood ‘By Any Other Name’, Brendan Duffy ‘Space Girl Blues’, TF Davenport ‘Oak with the Left Hand’, Sean McMullen ‘Spacebook’, Margo Lanagan ‘Yon Horned Moon’, Mark Rossiter ‘The Caretaker’, Jason Nahrung ‘Messiah on the Rock’, Angela Ambroz ‘Pyaar Kiya’, Steve Cameron ‘So Sad, the Lighthouse Keeper’

B format 728 pages

ISBN 9780987158703 – printed book

ISBN 9780987158710 – ebook

The book has landed here on Earth and is available now in print and multi-format ebook. The official launch will be happening at the New South Wales Writers Centre Speculative Fiction Festival on Saturday, November 5th. Several of the contributing authors will be there, including myself. As part of the launch, Richard Harland, Margo Lanagan and I will be reading excerpts from our stories. Of course, all the attending authors will also be happy to sign your copy at the launch. There’s so much else going on that day – if you’re anywhere near Sydney, don’t miss it!

In the meantime, all the purchase details for this awesome anthology can be found here. Go get some!


How to write a fight scene masterclass now online

You’ve read the book. Right? You’ve bought the t… wait, I haven’t made a t-shirt. Maybe I should. Anyway, none of that matters. I’ve taken my successful workshop on how to write realistic and convincing fight scenes online. I did an online seminar, in conjunction with The Creative Penn, last week and it went very well. It was recorded and, as a result, we now have a multimedia package available for just US$20. Hopefully this package will be useful to everyone who wants their fight scenes to leap off the page. Don’t forget that my short ebook on the subject is also available, for just a couple of bucks.

The Masterclass package contains the full ninety minute seminar in podcast and slide video format. You can learn more about it and get your copy here, via The Creative Penn (click the pic):

Fight Scene Masterclass