Halloween: Language & Culture

With the last post being about holidays, that makes this an easy  transition into festivals and today is Halloween.

Halloween is traditionally a time of trick or treat, costumes, sweets and ghost stories. However, there’s also lots of language that surrounds it and can be useful in other contexts.

The phrase ‘trick or treat’ starts us off with an overt threat in exchange for a pay off. If the householder does not offer the children a treat, (or sometimes if the treat is not what the kids want) a trick will be played on them. One house in my neighbourhood was famous for handing out toothbrushes. Kicking in or stealing the pumpkin, toilet paper draped over a tree, a raw egg thrown at the door or window are all examples of some of the tricks played on them, some of them almost traditional as annual occurrences themselves.

Halloween is also a time for dressing up in costumes, wearing masks etc. There’s a number of expressions that can be tied in here. Some people have a ‘mask’ that they wear in public, work, family situations. They pretend to be, or not be something that they are. At Winchester some of the staff usually joke about mr Chips or Hogwarts around graduation ceremonies where we all wear our academic gowns for the only time in the year. Hogwarts was especially popular as Miriam Margolyes was receiving her honorary PhD this year, alongside Patrick Gale, who’s now the third doctor in his family.

You can get ‘dressed up’ as anything you like at Halloween. But, if your colleague ‘dresses up’ a ‘problem’ as an ‘opportunity’ then they are displaying positive thinking, if not necessarily realism.

Occasionally people show the person ‘behind the mask’ meaning that they actually express their true ideas or self as opposed to a watered down version they think will be more acceptable. Of course some people ‘wear their heart on their sleeve’ meaning that they never hide what they feel. Often interviews with celebrities or public figures claim to show you the ‘man/woman behind the mask’ exposing their most private and inner selves. Bringing to mind another idiom ‘like peeling and onion’ meaning that there is always something hidden and always another layer.

In cartoons and comic books the villans, (and sometimes the heroes) are often masked. This gives us the phrase ‘to unmask’ meaning to reveal someone who was previously hidden or anonymous. Of course mask can also be used in cosmetics, meaning to hide or reduce the visibility of something, and also as a treatment for you face, often involving sliced cucumbers apparently.

The pumpkin or jack-o-lantern is a popular symbol of Halloween. A type of squash pumpkins are traditionally carved into faces, originally to scare away bad spirits but more recently the carving has almost become an art form in of itself even jumping into marketing.

Of course there are those that claim Halloween, like Valentine’s Day is a ‘hallmark holiday’ a made up festival with its roots no deeper than a marketing campaign. (That expression connects to the Hallmark card company.) Halloween is connected at least in theme to Samhain an ancient British festival celebrating the autumn, but with all the marketing effort behind confectionary, costumes & carving perhaps the holiday has changed.


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