As a child I spent many Halloweens donning plastic face masks, or covering myself in make-up in a failed attempt to make myself look like Frankenstein (Yes I know the doctor was Frankenstein not the monster FYI the monster’s name is actually Adam), or Dracula. We were never really told what Halloween was about. We just saw it as an excuse to dress up and scrounge sweet treats off kindly, and sometimes not so kindly, adults.
So what are we actually celebrating? What do the many things we associate with Halloween actually mean and what are their origins?
Firstly Halloween was originally Samhain, a Gaelic festival that signals the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. It is also a time when it is believed that the barriers between the living world and the dead world are close enough for the souls of the dead, and other monsters, to enter the living world. (You can see where Halloween traditions of ghouls and monsters has come from).
The tradition of ‘guising’ has been recorded as far back as the 16th century when people would disguise themselves and go from door to door singing songs in exchange for food for a Samhain feast. The people who offered food would then be blessed. The bigger the donation the bigger the blessing. Guising was also believed to protect one from evil spirits. You are dressed like an evil spirit or creature and were therefore safe from them.
The playing of pranks while being guised can be traced as far back as 1736 in Scotland and was also a common practice in Ireland. This tradition was carried to North America where it became the ‘trick or treat’ tradition.
So what other things do we associate with Halloween?
Bats – Bats are regarded as witches’ ‘familiars’ (A supernatural entity believed to help the witch). Seeing a bat at Samhain is considered a bad omen. According to Medieval folklore, a bat flying around you house three times is a portent of death. If the bat flies into the house then the house is haunted.
Black Cats – The black cat has been a symbol of Satan since the Middle Ages. (They are also classed as a witch’s familiar). Allegedly Satan would manifest himself as a black cat when conversing with witches, which is why we associate them with Halloween. In North America a black cat crossing your path is considered bad luck. In Ireland, Scotland and England it is considered good luck.
Bobbing for Apples – In ancient times the apple was seen as a sacred fruit and believed to have the ability to tell the future. Bobbing for apples was a fortune telling game, usually involving love.
Broom Stick – Often associated with poor, old women the broom stick became a symbol of witchcraft. Witches couldn’t afford horses so they allegedly flew on broomsticks
Candy Apples – Samhain was celebrated by the Celts around the same time as a Roman festival Pamona, the Goddess of Fruit Trees. It is no wonder that living side by side Celtic and Roman ideas were exchanged and the candy apple became a permanent treat during Halloween. Although it was most likely covered in honey rather than sprinkles.
Cauldrons – According to Celtic folklore the cauldron represents the womb of Mother Earth. Souls of the dead would enter the cauldron and would be stirred in order for new souls to be born and old ones to be reborn. Unfortunately the bubbling, noxious cauldron has now become a symbol of evil magic.
Jack O’ Lanterns – We all enjoy carving these bad boys up and making scary faces and/or intricate designs but are we actually taught the significance of the Jack O’ Lantern? According to Celtic folklore, a farmer called Jack was able to trick the devil. When he died he was turned away from heaven and hell. Being condemned to walk through the blackness of purgatory for eternity, he made a lantern out of a turnip and placed inside a lump of coal thrown from hell by the Devil that burned continually. Jack guides lost souls home on Samhain using his lantern. The scary faces of the lanterns are supposed to scare evil spirits away.
Soul Cakes – Amongst Christians, Halloween is known as All Souls Eve. One tradition is to bake Soul Cakes. For every Soul Cake eaten you are allowed to pray for one soul lost in purgatory. A traditional song (from 1891) about Soul Cakes was recorded in 1963 by Peter, Paul and Mary.
Spiders – Nothing surprising about spiders. They are creepy, ugly looking things that scare the life out of most people. Spiders are also seen as familiars.
Why Orange and Black? – The colours we associate with Halloween allegedly stem from colours associated with autumn. Which makes sense when you think that we associate orange with leaves changing colour and falling, and black is associated with death and long, dark nights.
Witches – The snuggle-toothed vultures, with warty noses and haunting cackles? That is how we view them now. We see witches as being old women. ‘The Crone’, a pagan goddess was actually revered at Samhain. She symbolises the ‘Earth Mother’, a wise deity who is associated with the changing of the seasons.
Have I missed out any traditions? Those of you who are reading from other countries what are your traditions around this time of the year?