Tuesday, 29 November, 2022

History of Halloween and a Tragedy in Seoul

A K Ziauddin Ahmed

History of  Halloween and a Tragedy in Seoul

Popular News

October 31, 2022, was Halloween. On the night of Saturday, October 29, 2022, thousands of young people were gathering in the popular nightlife district of Seoul, South Korea to enjoy Halloween festivities. Restaurants and bars in the area were packed with partying youngsters wearing Halloween costumes. Suddenly the sounds of celebrations turned into screams for survival. According to The Guardian, in a narrow and sloped alley near a big hotel in the area, people continued to pour in while it was already packed resulting in a crowd crash and stampede killing at least 153 people and leaving many injured. Most of the victims were in their twenties - young people with their whole life ahead of them. It was a heartbreaking tragedy.

In our subcontinent, we are not that familiar with Halloween. What kind of festival is it? Let’s take a brief look at what it is.

David J. Skal in his book ‘Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween’ notes that all histories of Halloween trace back to the ancient Celtic festival called Samhain. Celts were ancient tribal people who inhabited the British Isles and parts of Northern Europe. They were conquered by the Romans. Celts left no written records; everything known about them comes from the Romans.

Lisa Morton provides a more vivid account of Samhain in her book titled, ‘Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween.’ She explains that Samhain was celebrated on the night of October 31 marking the end of summer before the beginning of a cold and dark winter. It was a festive night with a feast and an abundance of drinks. Celts believed that the door between the world of dead and alive was opened on the night of Samhain.

Encyclopedia Britannica adds that the souls of the dead were believed to return to visit their homes on the night of Samhain and people set bonfires on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits. Sometimes they wore masks and other disguises so that the ghosts couldn’t recognize them.

So, the elements of today’s Halloween – the date of celebration, food and drinks, masks, and costumes - all have their roots in the Celtic Samhain.

But Celts were pagans who believed in numerous deities and the intervention of ancestors’ ghosts in worldly life. So, how their Samhain continued with the name of Halloween after the advent of Christianity in Europe?

An answer to this question is given by Saron Messay in her article ‘Some History on Your Favorite Spooky Holiday’ published in ‘Our Children,’ an online magazine of the Parent-Teacher Association, USA. Messy mentioned that several Christian popes tried to replace Samhain with some Christian events. In 609 AD All Saints' Day, or All Hallows, was introduced by Pope Boniface IV to honor the Virgin Mary and all saints. All Saints' Day or All Hallows is observed on November 1. That made October 31 All Hallows Eve, which later became Halloween.

Thus, it is a Christian religious event or at least approved by Christianity. Now, according to the South Korean Culture and Information Service, 56% people of the country do not follow any organized religion. Among the 44% who identify themselves with a religion, Buddhism and Confucianism have more influence on the life of the Korean people than others. Also, more than half of the country’s cultural heritage is related to Buddhism and Confucianism.

Then why so many young people were celebrating Halloween in South Korea? Halloween is also celebrated in a big way in Japan where according to CIA World Factbook, only 1.5% are Christians, and 92.6% are adherent to Shintoism and Buddhism.

However, there is some difference in the celebration of Halloween in South Korea, Japan, and the western world.

In western culture, the main attraction of Halloween is ‘trick or treat’ where children go from house to house wearing masks and costumes and ask, ‘trick or treat?’ and the people of the house give them a handful of candy. That’s a lot of fun for the children. But this is absent in the Halloween celebration in Japan and South Korea.

It may also be noted that Halloween is a rather recently introduced event in both South Korea and Japan. In South Korea, it started probably in the 1980s and in Japan, it was introduced by Disneyland in the year 2000. Young people got attracted to the enjoyment of masks and costumes and partying associated with Halloween.

Therefore, Halloween celebrations in South Korea and Japan may be attributed to commercialism, cultural interaction with the west, and economic affluence.

In predominantly Christian nations, Halloween celebrations vary in popularity and spending.

In the USA, where Halloween is known to have reached from Europe in the mid-1800s, perhaps through Irish immigrants, the festival has a huge popularity. It is celebrated with more festivity and fervor than in Europe. This year’s Halloween spending in the USA was forecasted to be $10.6 billion by the National Retail Federation of the USA.

As reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on October 29, 2022, many Australians ignore Halloween, considering it an American celebration or a commercial display. This year only a quarter of Australians were expected to celebrate Halloween involving retail spending of about $430 million as forecasted by the Australian Retailers Association.

As estimated by Forbes, Halloween spending in the UK was supposed to be £687 million this year.

All the above projected retail spendings for Halloween were more than those of previous years. This may well be interpreted as the festival’s rising popularity and commercialization. Indeed, businesses play a very big role in promoting and popularizing particular festivals.

Technological advancements of modern times are bringing people closer through various means of communication including social media and travel. Cultural exchanges and learnings are taking place through these interactions and also because of the proliferation of satellite TV, movies, YouTube videos, etc. People particularly young people are finding many customs and practices of other cultures interesting, including religious practices that provide fun and festivity. They are adopting those practices as happened in Japan and South Korea for Halloween celebrations.

Again, changes in the outlooks and lifestyles of people over time can modify the spiritual appeal and way of observance of a religious festival.

Such adoptions, evolution, and commercialization may lead to the worldwide secular celebration of a religious festival transcending its nation or culture of origin and shredding its religious fervor. Valentine’s day is one such festival and Halloween is probably on the way to becoming another one like it.


The writer is a former Corporate

Professional and Academic