Why dressing up has always been at the heart of Halloween

From warding off spirits of the dead to bringing cities like Derry to life, costumes have played a key role in Ireland's traditions for thousands of years

Left and centre photos courtesy of the Derry Journal, right photo courtesy of Derry City Strabane District Council

As the evenings draw in and autumn arrives, the added chill in the air and the creeping darkness of October reminds us that Halloween is not far off. Preparations have long been underway for the annual festival that is Derry Halloween and for everyone else, thoughts now turn to the most important question of all – what to wear?

Dressing up for Halloween is often dismissed as being another one of those American traditions that we’ve adopted. However, while it’s true that trick-or-treating stems from the US – and the more festive costumes with it - there are also stories which suggest that making Halloween costumes also comes from Celtic tradition…

'At Halloween it was considered that the veil between this world and the ‘otherworld’, where the dead lived, was very very thin and that spirits could come back,' says Dr Bob Curran, a Coleraine-based psychologist, historian and author of multiple books on everything from ghosts and vampires, to fairies and zombies.

'The church actually taught this,' he adds. 'It taught that sometimes, if you were especially good in life, that you became one of the Blessed Dead in the afterlife and were permitted by God to return on one day of the year to enjoy the things you enjoyed while alive, for example, a good meal or a glass of whiskey. But if God could do that, then so could the Devil. And so, other souls also rose up and wandered about the countryside.'

Derry Parade

Derry's spooktacular annual parade is the climactic point of the city's celebrations

It was to protect themselves from these ‘other souls’ that ancient people are said to have dressed up, as a way of disguising themselves, should they meet a spirit. Wearing masks would, they believed, fool the ghosts into thinking they too were from the otherworld and so, they would be passed by unharmed.

'To keep away demons you might have put a light in your window to frighten them,' says Curran. 'Hence the idea of the pumpkin lantern – or turnips. By carving a grotesque face into it, the idea was that a demon face would frighten away a real demon.'

The Americans, of course, adopted dressing-up as one of their Hallowe’en traditions and by the late 1800s, had begun to shape this part of the year into a more jolly festivity. All Hallows’ Eve subsequently became more about pranking and trick-or-treating, with parties for children and adults, along with food, games and festive costumes.

Halloween itself, however, dates back more than 2,000 years to Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’) – the ancient Celtic festival which marked the end of harvest (summer’s end) and the beginning of the dark winter. People tended to stay indoors during this bleak time of year, which was cold and often rife with illness and death.

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Where our ancestors blamed spirits and demons for the ills which befell them during this time of year, today, we better understand the seasons, and we dismiss spooky stories with our modern thinking. We dress up not to frighten away the undead, but simply to spook ourselves - and there’s nowhere better in the world to do that than in Derry.

For the annual Halloween festival in the city – this year running from October 26 until November 3 – costumes are always very carefully thought through and assembled. Designed for maximum impact, materials are sourced from various locations, theatrical make-up is applied and ever creative costume ideas are birthed. Witches and vampires are still Halloween staples, of course, but so too are political figures and celebrities, along with iconic characters from fiction, film and the internet. Originality is key to the dedicated dresser-upper at Derry Halloween.

Jim Collins from the North West Carnival Initiative, which organises the magnificent Halloweeen parade every year in the city, says there’s always lots of creativity when it comes to the costume-making.

'We always try to up our game each year,' he says. 'For me, it’s all about engaging people – encouraging the construction of culture. This year’s theme, ‘Return of the Ancients’ is fairly broad so it covers a lot of possibilities in terms of costumes.'

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With more than 700 people set to take part in the 2018 community parade, he adds that the local tradition of dressing up has come a long way.

'Halloween has gone from being more of an organic thing to something a lot more organised, so the quality of costumes has increased. Back in the mid to late '80s there was a conflict going on and dressing up was a distraction, I suppose, from that horrible situation. It was a way of people letting their hair down.

'It might have just been putting on a clown mask – there were no pound shops or specialist costume shops back then - or you might have got talcum powder for your face or thrown a sheet over yourself. There was always a culture in people making their costumes themselves. It all grew out of that.

'If your granny or your ma worked in a shirt factory there were always machines about and obviously, having so many talented seamstresses fed into people’s desire to make good costumes. But you can kind of overplay that side of things.'

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Derry Halloween 1990, photo courtesy of the Derry Journal

Since 2005, the North West Carnival Initiative has been working with Derry City and Strabane District Council to create an annual extravaganza which has taken the tradition of dressing up to another level.

Running everything from dance and movement workshops, to prop-making and, of course, costume-making, the North West Carnival Initiative is always happy to help when it comes to creating the perfect Hallowe’en get-up.

The only thing is, with so many superb costumes now roaming the city’s streets every year, it’s becoming more and more difficult to distinguish the dresser-uppers from the actual walking dead…

The Derry Halloween 'Return of the Ancients' festival runs from October 26 to November 3, with over 100 events taking place across the city and beyond. For full details of what's on as well as travel, accomodation and more visit www.derryhalloween.com. The Return of the Ancients Street Carnival Parade and fireworks display will start at 7pm on October 31 in the city centre.