On the evening of October 31st members of an event organizing company decorated an upscale bar in Bole area in the spirit of a spooky Halloween. Spider webs, skulls, torn black veils, plastic pumpkins and cutout shapes of bats. Many decorations hung on walls and across the ceiling in anticipation of a crowded night out. A prominent local DJ was booked to perform.
Doors opened two hours ago but the few people seemed like regulars to the bar and it was unlikely any more people would show. The sparse crowd in the bar was quickly dwindling as it grew later in the evening.
This event company and this bar were not the only ones hoping to gather crowds for All Hallows’ Eve. A number of parties were prepared throughout the city in bars and hotels from last weekend on. But they failed to attract any real attention.
David J. Skal in his book ‘Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween’ traces the history of Halloween (or All Hallows’ Eve, Summer’s End, November Ever or Witches’ Night, as it is alternatively known) to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which marked the death of summer and the beginning of the Celtic new year. “The Celts inhabited the British Isle and parts of northern Europe prior to the Roman invasions and Samhain was one of their two major sun festivals. At Samhain, the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds was believed to be especially transparent,” says Skal.
While some historians believe Samhain was a pagan belief that was Christianized as Halloween by the early church, some contend that Halloween was always a Christian holiday and had nothing to do with festivals like Samhain.
Halloween activities include trick or treating, (or the related guising), attending costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, divination games, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories, and watching horror films. In many parts of the world, the Christian religious observances of All Hallows’ Eve, including attending church services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead, remain popular, although elsewhere it is a more commercial and secular celebration.
By the end of the 12st century, the holiday had been linked to Christianity by becoming All Hallows’ Eve. Various customs began to be associated to Christianity.
The rising popularity of Guy Fawkes Night on 5 November from 1605 onward saw many Halloween traditions appropriated by that holiday instead, and Halloween’s popularity waned in Britain. Scotland and Ireland had been celebrating Samhain and Halloween since at least the early middle Ages, and the Scottish church took a pragmatic approach to Halloween, seeing it as important to the life cycle and rites of passage of communities and thus ensuring its survival in the country.
The massive Irish and Scottish immigration to North America in the 19th century led to the holiday becoming a major one in the United States. It expanded into mainstream society at the beginning of the 20th century.
Halloween, just as Christmas, has become a way of promoting products and activities businesses can benefit from. In the west, both have strayed from the strong religious or spiritual connections that were the basis of the celebrations. Just as Christianity spread to Africa and other regions by European and American explorers, capitalism is the new preacher of western culture introducing Africa to the splendor of consumerism, it would seem.
Many cultural practices have been transplanted to Ethiopia and several other African natures, largely erasing local systems of belief and worship. For instance, some argue the Santa Claus of Christmas is a purely western invention that has taken deep root in Ethiopian celebrations of the holiday, the image of the overweight boisterous white man fixed in our imagination.
So why hasn’t Halloween done the same?
Globalization has increased the likelihood of exchange. Borders are becoming more porous. However, pundits also argue that it isn’t an issue of cultural exchange since westerners aren’t adopting African culture; this is not without reason. For one, with the fraught history of slavery and continued racial politics complicating many forms of cultural exchange, if westerners adopt something African it risks being perceived as cultural appropriation. On the other hand, when western narrative begins to dominate in Africa it begs the question why – isn’t this neo-colonization?
Africa has its fair share of celebrations that have much in common with Halloween. For instance, Egungun festival is an annual celebration amongst the Yoruba people found mainly in the South Western parts of Nigeria. Egungun is a Yoruba word that refers to masqueraders that raid the street during the festival, dancing to the tune of drummers. The festival is a celebration of important people who have passed away during the year. It is celebrated to give assurance to the dead that they are remembered and still have a place in the land of the living.
Throughout the many decades since its arrival in North America, Halloween has transformed a great deal. It was manipulated to fit into Christian doctrine in the 12th century and continued to be appropriated into many different cultures and has been celebrated in several differing ways in various places around the world. American celebrations of the day are different from Europe, and both are divergent from Japanese or Chinese celebrations.
Skal continues to say, “Contemporary Halloween is a patchwork holiday, a kind of cultural Frankenstein stitched together quite recently from a number of traditions, all fused beneath the cauldron-light of the American melting pot.”
If one is obstinate about adopting the holiday in African countries, it’s best to find common ground and build the holiday from the bottom up instead of insisting people follow the popular American Halloween.
Or better yet, as many African scholars argue, why not rediscover or highlight existing African or Ethiopian celebrations of the cycles of life and death?