The origins of Halloween and the best places to celebrate

When I was growing up in country Western Australia, we hardly gave a thought to Halloween. It wasn't celebrated locally; no gangs of children wandered the streets of our nearest town, soliciting sweets by threatening tricks.

The closest we came to its pumpkins and pageantry was via American television series, including The Brady Bunch episode in which the kids teamed up to scare their fearless housekeeper Alice (the scamps!).

As Halloween has become more popular here over the years, Australians have drawn heavily on those American traditions.

So it can come as a surprise to discover that Halloween's roots stretch across the Atlantic to Ireland, and neighbouring Celtic nations and regions.

As with many of our public holidays, Halloween's origins are caught up in a messy intertwining of Christian and pagan festivals. The Christian angle is clear: Halloween, formally All Hallow's Eve, is the night before All Saints' Day, on which believers remember the dead.

In Ireland, however, Halloween coincided with the Celtic festival of Samhain. Taking place at the end of the harvest season, Samhain marked the end of the warmer months. 

It's here we find hints of traditions that have survived in the modern Halloween. Bonfires were lit, and spirits of the dead were thought to revisit their descendants. People went from door to door "guising", wearing disguises and receiving food. 

Later, in Christian times, "souling" involved the receipt of soul-cakes in return for recital of prayer and song. There are echoes of this on All Saints' Day in Portugal, when you might see children taking part in the custom of Pão de Deus, knocking on local doors in exchange for small cakes.

The best places to go to be possessed by the Halloween spirit

The obvious answer is New York, where the world's biggest Halloween celebration takes place each year.

From humble origins in 1974, when Greenwich Village puppeteer Ralph Lee arranged a celebration for local kids, the Village Halloween Parade now attracts some 60,000 costumed participants and two million onlookers.

If you want to avoid Hollywood-style razzamatazz and get back to the occasion's Celtic origins, however, Ireland is the place to be.

One option is the annual Samhain Festival, which was held this year at Loughcrew Gardens, northwest of Dublin. 

There's nothing particularly pagan about the electronic music performed at this big outdoor concert, but the location has plenty of ancient credentials. Loughcrew contains burial grounds over 5000 years old, and the event took place below Sliabh na Cailli, the so-called Witch's Mountain.

For more authenticity, however, head to the Samhain Festival of Fire in the small town of Athboy, 65 kilometres from Dublin in County Meath. 

For 15 years this torchlight procession has made its way to the Hill of Tlachtga on the night of 31 October. Participants dress in costume and play musical instruments as they walk along an unlit country road to the hill, within which an archaeological dig discovered ancient remains.

In ancient times Tlachtga was the centre of Samhain celebrations, with a great bonfire blazing at over several days of revelry.

This year a thousand people are expected to march to the site, where they'll hear about the history of the hill, and – perhaps ironically, considering the American co-opting of Halloween – be entertained by a US pipe band.

The procession is part of the Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival, which began in 2009 and grandly proclaims the county as "the birthplace of Halloween".

The two-week festival calendar contains such diverse items as a Halloween drive-in movie season, a pumpkin-growing competition, a torchlit walk through the village of Kells, various storytelling events, a murder mystery dinner, and a gourmet wine night involving pumpkin carving. 

For the horror-minded, there's even Farmaphobia, a farm-based event featuring the Field of Screams, wherein "a horrendous maze of scarecrows ensure a night you will want to forget for the rest of your life."

Sounds like fun.

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