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Halloween history and idioms

This famous celebration takes place on the evening (een) 31st of October, the day before All Hallows Day (All Saint’s Day), a Christian holiday. Though the name comes from a religious festival, the celebration itself is non-religious. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the more popular images and customs: children (and adults) dressed in scary costumes, trick-or-treating kids, horror films, ghosts and witches etc. In today’s blog, I’ll talk about the origins of Halloween, some of the stranger customs and finish off with some idioms you might find useful at this time of year, or that use words associated with Halloween.

The origins of Halloween are generally thought to be in Britain and Ireland, in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which took place on November 1st. This was the start of winter, when the souls of the people who had died in years past were believed to visit their old homes and those that had recently passed away were thought to pass into the afterlife. In order to scare away these spirits, people would wear masks and costumes and light bonfires (large fires).

In the mid-19th century, British and Irish immigrants brought these customs with them to America. Halloween has since become hugely popular, especially in the USA.

The most famous custom at Halloween is trick-or-treating: Children tour the neighbourhood in costume, threatening to pull a prank (practical joke) if they aren’t given sweets. This practice is thought to originate in Britain when the poor were allowed to beg for “soul cakes” on Halloween. Of course, there’s carving a jack-o-lantern (a pumpkin with a scary face on it. Another game found at Halloween parties is bobbing/ducking for apples: this is where children try to catch apples floating in water using only their mouths. This tradition is thought to come from the Roman festival of Pomona. Some people use Halloween to try to contact the dead using divination, using tarot cards or Ouija boards, and others might visit a place thought to be haunted.

Idioms about being scared

To give someone the heebie-jeebies – to make someone so scared they tremble or shudder.

To make someone’s blood run cold – to make someone so scared that they feel cold all over.

To scare the living daylights out of someone – to make someone so scared they are unable to move or breathe.

Eg “That film gave me the heebie-jeebies/made my blood run cold/scared the living daylights out of me!”

Idioms using Halloween words

To have skeletons in your closet – to have secrets in your past that you don’t want to talk about.

Eg “My uncle never talks about his past. I bet he has a lot of skeletons in his closet!”

Skeleton staff – the minimum amount of people needed to run a business or institution.

Eg “It took forever to get served at the bar last night, they only had a skeleton staff on”.

Witch hunt - an attempt to find and punish someone for actions or views not generally accepted by society. The victim of a witch hunt often considers themselves to be innocent.

Eg “Donald Trump called the most recent indictment a witch hunt.”

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