Halloween in Australia? It’s been here much longer than you might think…

Earlier this month, farmer Rusty Dredge was preparing to harvest around 150,000 jack-o’-lantern pumpkins on his farm near Broome, WA. Most of these pumpkins will have now made their way to homes in Western and South Australia where they’ve been stabbed, hacked at, and lovingly transformed into ghoulish lanterns for Halloween.

A steadily growing celebration in Australia, many are embracing the event as a day of imagination, revelry and a bit of fun for the kiddies around the neighbourhood. There’s also loud opposition against the adoption of an essentially consumer-based American tradition that is distinctly un-Australian.

If you’ve read anything about Halloween in the last few weeks you’ll know that modern day Halloween descends from the Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’) and catholic tradition of All Hallows or All Saints. Aside from the onslaught of mass marketing and made-in-China trinkets and costumes, the way Halloween is celebrated throughout the world still incorporates a hotch-potch of distant images and rituals originally from Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Europe and the Roman Empire.

Whatever your thoughts about trick-or-treating, consumerism, spirituality or pumpkins, Halloween has in fact been celebrated in Australia for a very long time. It may not have been mainstream, but it was certainly part of the fabric of social life in many areas, and a celebration that often focused on young people and romance.

halloween-calendar-jpg

The first acknowledgement of Halloween in Australian print was in The Geelong Advertiser when the event was included in an annual calendar in 1847 (left).

A quick flick through a possible 26,616 newspaper records in the sainted Trove database also tells us that throughout the mid-late 1800s a ship named ‘Halloween’ frequented Australian shores bringing tea from China (below).

halloween-ship
(1875). The ‘Halloween’ in an unidentified port.

The most enduring mention of Halloween in Australian newspapers however, tell the story of Scottish immigrants. The earliest records of Caledonian Societies celebrating Halloween date back to the 1850s in Adelaide and some societies continue to celebrate to this day. Annual Halloween balls were the most popular form of event and these grew in popularity into the early to mid-1900s.

Following is a list of some of the places where Halloween has been celebrated.

QLD (Kalgoorlie, Rockhampton, Brisbane, Maryborough, Cairns, Charters Towers, Mulgrave, Roma & Gordonvale), NSW (Lismore, Armidale, Leeton, Broken Hill, Glen Innes, Woonona, Lithgow, Macleay & Uralla) SA (Adelaide, Mount Gambier,  Mount Barker & Balaklava), VIC (Bendigo, Castlemaine, Beaufort, Mildura, Maffra, Longford, Melbourne,  Hamilton, Williamstown, Forest Creek, Prahran, Sunshine, Dandenong, Shepparton, Ararat) TAS (Launceston), NT (Alice Springs, Parap) WA (Kalgoorlie, Perth, Fremantle, Dangin, Kulin, Noman’s Lake, Leonora).

jpg-leader-1901-melbourne-vic-pic-ball-sat-2-nov-p36
The Leader, (Melbourne VIC) November 2 1901, p.36

Halloween balls and concerts usually took place in church and Mechanics Institute halls, town halls and theatres. Most celebrations included decorations of Scottish tartan, the symbol of the thistle, recitations, pipe bands, musical performances, dancing and the singing of traditional Scottish songs from the ‘auld country’. Food included sweets and dainties, apples, nuts, Haggis and ‘champit tatties’ (Scottish mashed spuds).

border-watch-mount-gambier-games-tues-2-nov-1948-p8-jpg
Border Watch (Mt. Gambier SA) November 2 1948, p.8

Games were played by the young folk – bobbing for apples or trying to catch apples on strings with the mouth (dookin’ for apples), egg and spoon races, bun eating competitions, potato races and a very puzzling game of ‘beheading the rooster’. (right)

On occasion, descriptions of Halloween events would appear in newspapers; sometimes recording the fashions worn by the ladies and members in attendance.

Halloween customs around courtship were also practised by young men and women as featured in the writing of Robert Burns. (Try combing your hair and eating an apple at the same time).

From The Register (Adelaide) 31 October 1906 below:

In Australia there are few cities or towns in which absolutely no notice is taken of Halloween by the Scottish residents; and the Caledonian Society in South Australia has for many years religiously observed it.

The original significance of the pulling up of a stalk of kale by each member of a group of young people going out hand-in-hand into the field with eyes shut was that the characteristics of the stalks which each secured would give a preliminary indication of the kind of partner the future would bring. If much earth adhered to tbe root, this was held to be a sure sign that marriage would ensure a fair share of riches. A sour taste on biting the stalk was a bad omen, foretelling union with an ill-natured spouse.

Proceeding further in the mystic investigation, the lads and lasses obtained a number of nuts, to each of which was assigned the name of one of the party. These were put Into the fire side by side, and if they burned quietly it was a sign of courtship and marriage, but if they started or jumped away from one an other, the movement predicted mutual aversion. Any maid who bad not in this way found her ‘affinity’ had, however, other resources of prophecy open to her. If she went alone into a dark room with a lighted taper or candle, and began to eat an apple and to comb her hair at the same time, it was supposed that a face would suddenly appearin the looking glass peeping over her shoulder and wearing the likeness of her future husband.

Various games, such as biting at apples swimming in a bowl of water or dangling on a beam of wood with a lighted candle at the opposite end were also indulged in on the eve of All Saints’ Day, with the object of merrymaking.

The popularity of the festival, especially among the younger members of the gentler sex, seems to have been largely due to the natural tendency of such prophecies as those of Halloween to bring about in time their own fulfilment. A good deal of latitude was allowed in the naming of the nuts which were burned in the fire, and mental reservations not known to the bystanders were apparently the rule.

Not much can be found in the way of trickery, though mischief was obviously part of the culture of Halloween:

jpg-kapunda-beer
Kapunda Herald (SA), March 18 1887, p.6

 

argus-newspaper-collection-of-photographs-state-library-of-victoria-argus-newspaper-halloween-party-for-u-s-servicemen-u-s-red-cross-club
(1943) [Halloween Party for U.S. Servicemen… U.S. Red Cross Club]
playing-%22apple-on-a-string%22-at-a-halloween-party-at-the-childrens-library-state-library-of-south-australia
(1984) Public Library S.A.

Happy Halloween!

Whether you do or do not celebrate – raise a glass to those who’ve been celebrating in Australia for over 150 years.

illustrated-front-cover-from-the-queenslander-october-26-1938-queensland-state-library
Unidentified (1938) Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander, October 26 1938. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
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2 thoughts on “Halloween in Australia? It’s been here much longer than you might think…

  1. The Burns Club in Armidale (early 70s) held a party each year. Events featured apple bobbing, apple on a string eating, dancing the strip the willow and mask making. The local paper covered the event.
    They were great fun!

    Like

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