Happy Halloween everyone! I hope everyone has a fun night of treats planned (hopefully no tricks)! Aside from holidays that involve fireworks (because it’s hard to top fireworks), Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I love the change in the air and the feeling of participating in something very old. Considering Halloween is one of the oldest celebrations in the world – dating back approximately 2,000 years – I guess this feeling is pretty justified!
I thought it would be fun to do a blog post of the roots behind some our more cherished Halloween traditions in honor of the holiday. Halloween is fairly new to North America, having only been around since the early 1900s. The holiday actually has its roots in pagan traditions with the day originally marking the Celtic New Year.
Halloween is actually known by several other names including:
Samhain (Gaelic meaning “summer’s end”)
All Hallow’s Eve
The Feast of the Dead
The Day of the Dead
The black cat’s bad reputation dates back to the witch hunts that took place during the Dark Ages. Women were often accused of witchcraft and their pet cats were said to be their “familiars,” or demonic animals that had been given to them by the devil. Other medieval myths claimed that Satan turned himself into a cat when socializing with witches.
The tradition of carving of Jack-O’-Lanterns actually has its roots in a rather sinister fable. Celtic folklore tells of a farmer named Jack who tricked the devil, but his trickery resulted in him being turned away from both the gates of heaven and hell after he died. Having no choice but to wander around the darkness of purgatory, Jack made a lantern from a turnip and a burning lump of coal that the devil had tossed him from hell. Jack used this lantern to guide his lost soul; as such the Celts believed that placing jack-o’-lanterns outside would help guide lost spirits home when they wander the roads on Halloween. The frightening carved faces serve to scare evil spirits away. Originally turnips were used for jack-o’-lanterns, but as pumpkins were more popular in the US when the Irish migrated, pumpkins were used instead and so the tradition continues.
The stereotypical image of the haggard witch with a pointy hat and warty nose stirring a magical potion in her cauldron stems from a pagan goddess known as “the crone,” who was honored during Samhain. The crone was also known as “the old one” and the “Earth mother,” who symbolized wisdom, change, and the turning of the seasons.
The witch’s broom has its roots in medieval myth. The elderly, solitary women often accused of being witches were often poor and could not afford horses or other transportation so they navigated on foot with the help of walking sticks, which were sometimes substituted by brooms. English folklore tells that during night-time ceremonies witches rubbed a hallucinogenic “flying” potion on their bodies, closed their eyes, and felt as though they were flying.
In olden times, it was believed that during Samhain, the veil between the living and the spirit world was thinnest, and that the ghosts of the deceased could mingle with the living. The superstition goes that the visiting ghosts could disguise themselves in human form and knock on the door asking for money or food. If you turned them away empty-handed you risked receiving the wrath of the spirit and being cursed or haunted. Another myth believed that dressing up as a ghoul would fool the evil spirits into thinking that you were one of them so they wouldn’t try to take your soul.
The Celts celebrated Samhain with bonfires, games, and comical pranks. The tradition continued on in the US, but by the 1930s the celebrations became more rowdy, with rising acts of vandalism, possibly due to the tension caused by the Great Depression. To curb the vandalism, adults began to hand out candy, reigniting the once forgotten tradition of trick-or-treating in costume in exchange for sweets.
*Please note that all of these stories are just one version of many. Each culture seems to have their own explanation for each tradition.
What are your favorite Halloween traditions? Myths? Legends??