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Throughout Britain as well as across the USA and much of Europe Halloween is second in popularity to Christmas. For some the fact that it happens over a single day, with limited commercialisation beyond fancy dress sales and hire, makes it their favourite festival of the year. Quite a lot of people who dislike Christmas enjoy Halloween. In this article we are going to explore the history, traditions, games and what happens today.

For the photographer its a fantastic opportunity, but also one where you need to balance your interest in photographing it with your enjoyment of the fun with others. Following Halloween why not have a go at photographing the now disused carved pumpkin in an imaginary way.

The history

Halloween is the 31st of October, and has been since the year 836 in England. Originally from this point in the Christian calendar known as 'All Souls' Eve. It became known as All Hallows' evening, and over time this was shortened to Halloween. Far before that it was a special day in the ancient Celtic Calendar know as 'Samhain'. The word 'Samhain' is the Irish Gaelic word for November and 't-Samhain' is the Scottish Gallic word for November. There are variant spellings amongst these and other Gaelic cultures.

It is not, as some believe, an American tradition but one that went from Europe to the states and was very popular here in olden times. In more recent times it has become a far wider celebration in the USA before being picked up in a large way again here. In both the USA and UK, as well as many other places Halloween has been growing very rapidly in popularity with many of us now enjoying Halloween far more than Christmas.

It is also a huge industry, in the USA costume sales for Halloween was $4.96 billion in 2006, up significantly from just $3.3 billion the previous year. Between 2001 and 2006, consumer spending in the UK for Halloween rose tenfold from £12million to £120million.

In the far past the year was divided into two parts the dark part and the light part. With the year starting with the dark part, which started on the 1st November. In many ancient beliefs the gap between something is very important, and where spirits can inhabit or come through, so the Oak tree with its loose bark and gaps was particularly important to ancient druids, and the gap between one year and the next on 'Samhain', all souls evening, Halloween, was the time when spirits from beyond this life could visit. Providing some good but also being feared by some as well. It also allowed futures to be told.

At this time stock was taken of livestock and food supplies, the harvest was complete and decisions needed to be made about how many animals should be kept alive through the winter period. Animals that were not going to be able to be fed were slaughtered and their meat dried or smoked. The fire that was used for this was the only one in the village, all others having been put out, and then as a part of this celebration all re-lit from this common fire, signifying that the village was one, sharing warmth and food. In many cultures there were two fires and both people and animals to be kept, went between them as a part of a purification routine. This was the historic basis of all the fire festivals, and accounts for why in many cultures they start around this time. In Britain we celebrate bonfire and fireworks night on the 5th November, marking a celebration of the prevention of catholic terrorists blowing up the King and parliament.

Trick or treat came from a traditional festival on the 4th November in Northern England called Mischief Night. Around the world it's known by many names and occurred on either 31st October or 4th November, Wikipedia has an article on Mischief night . At the beginning of the light half of the year you have another mischief like day on 1st April, April fools day.

Spooks and Costumes

Halloween, is the boundary between the end of one year and the beginning of the next, in this gap the alive and the deceased dissolved, and the dead become dangerous for the living by causing problems such as sickness or damaged crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into which bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or placate them.

The jack-o-lantern, originally came about in Europe, with a turnip hollowed out, creating a lit face, this was as a form of protection keeping spirits away from your home or you, if you carried it.  Later with the availability of the pumpkin, this was used, as it was larger and easier to hollow out.

Believing that the head was the most powerful part of the body containing the spirit and the knowledge, the Celts used the "head" of the vegetable to frighten off any superstitions. The name jack-o'-lantern can be traced back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a greedy, gambling, hard-drinking old farmer. He tricked the devil into climbing a tree and trapped him by carving a cross into the tree trunk. In revenge, the devil placed a curse on Jack, condemning him to forever wander the earth at night with the only light he had, a candle inside of a hollowed turnip.

Halloween imagery largely developed through the cinema portrayals in horror movies, they tend to involve death, magic, or mythical monsters. Traditional characters include ghosts, ghouls, witches, owls, crows, vultures, pumpkin-men, black cats, spiders, goblins, zombies, mummies, skeletons, and demons.

Games and other traditions

There are several games traditionally associated with Halloween parties. The most common is dunking or apple bobbing, in which apples float in a tub or a large basin of water, the participants must use their teeth to remove an apple from the basin. A variant of dunking involves kneeling on a chair, holding a fork between the teeth and trying to drop the fork into an apple. Another common game involves hanging up treacle or syrup-coated scones by strings, these must be eaten without using hands while they remain attached to the string, an activity which inevitably leads to a very sticky face.

Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. In Puicíní (pronounced "poocheeny"), a game played in Ireland, a blindfolded person is seated in front of a table on which several saucers are placed. The saucers are shuffled and the seated person then chooses one by touch. The contents of the saucer determine the person's life during the following year. A saucer containing earth means someone known to the player will die during the next year, a saucer containing water foretells emigration, a ring foretells marriage, a set of Rosary beads indicates that the person will take Holy Orders (becoming a nun or a priest), a coin means new wealth, a bean means poverty, and so on.

In 19th century Ireland, young women placed slugs in saucers sprinkled with flour. A traditional Irish and Scottish form of divining one's future spouse is to carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one's shoulder. The peel is believed to land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse's name. This custom has survived among Irish and Scottish immigrants in the rural United States.

Unmarried women were frequently told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, the face of their future husband would appear in the mirror. However, if they were destined to die before marriage, a skull would appear. The custom was widespread enough to be commemorated on greeting cards from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The mirror gaze was one of many forms of love divination around Halloween.


Today Halloween is a fun celebration in very many countries. In some areas other names are used but the activities and basis is the same. This goes on across north America, most of Europe, parts of Australia and in more modern or commercialised sections of very many other countries. Some parts of Asia and many Muslim countries appear to miss out on this fun.



Most Christian sects get in on the act, or have their own equivalent, a few object to the imagery. Most Celtic Christian and pagan groups, have their own variations but many take a slightly more traditional view to Samhain. Most Wiccans, see it as their special day and one to have as much fun as possible alongside people with other beliefs, but  a small number of Wiccans feel that the tradition is offensive to "real witches" for promoting stereotypical caricatures of "wicked witches". Traditional witches or members of the craft,  join in the fun of Halloween with others but will also have another day on the nearest full moon where magic is performed.

Children dress up as ghosts, ghouls, witches and the like and will go house to house trick or treating. Typically you give them a sweet or they throw flower at you. Many older people will now have fancy dress parties along a similar theme, often with special food and games. Most of these parties are on the same general witches, ghouls, ghosts, monsters themes etc, while a small number having done this for some years are now using the occasion to have either a wider or slightly different theme.

For the photographer

This provides great photographic opportunities, but its also a great fun occasion that you will want to join in, so ideally this is where you have to make a balance, perhaps having a photo session at the party and photographing the food, but much of the time concentrating of enjoying yourself.

After, you could experiment with photographing the pumpkin in different ways. One year I stuffed it full of tissue and put a flash inside producing an image with light coming from all openings, another I left one outside and took photos of mice going in and out of the eye holes, and a third set one on fire, although they don't really burn.

Other information:-

The wheel of the year

Fire Festivals and Fire Events  

Photographing Street scenes at night 

Photographing coloured lights in forest/woodland settings 

Photographing fireworks 

Firework Events


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