Halloween is thought to have emerged over 2,000 years ego, evolving from an old Celtic festival celebrating the harvest and the coming winter – Samhain. The celebration was marked with bonfires and great feasts, but also with some fear. It was thought that the night of Samhain was a special one, as the dead found it far easier to interact with, and possibly even hurt, the living.
With the arrival of Christianity to Britain many pagan festivals and celebration became associated with new Christian festivals which took place at a similar time. The first of November became the celebration of All Saints’ Day – or All Hallows’ day. The night before became known as All Hallows’ Eve, eventually shortened to Halloween. The holiday was brought over to America largely by Irish immigrants and exploded in popularity, with roughly 70% of Americans celebrating the holiday. Both there and around the world, there are many different ways that it can be celebrated…
In part due to its very long history, Halloween has a large variety of superstitions and traditions attached to it – some well-known and others forgotten. The night has long been associated with the dead, with ghosts and spirits said to be stronger and more able to interact with the world. It should come as no surprise then that many superstitions surrounding the night revolve around death. In Wales those destined to die in the coming year will hear a sigh on the wind on Halloween night. In England, any who see their own shadow under the moonlight will surely die. There are a number of ways to protect yourselves from evil spirits on this night – travellers should keep bread crossed with salt in their pockets, and not turn around at footsteps behind them – but there are also a number of ways to welcome the returning spirits home. In Austria, for example, it is tradition to leave a lit lamp, bread, and water on the table.
That said, not every Halloween superstition is about the dead. For all its reputation as a spooky holiday, a shocking number of Halloween superstitions involve methods of seeing the future and, more specifically, your future spouse. The strangest of these is perhaps the idea that if you catch a snail on Halloween and place it in a covered dish, come morning the snail will have spelt the initial of your sweetheart in its slime. There are, however, a number of other ways to find out who you are destined to love. Placing a plethora of items beneath your pillow (rosemary, an apple, or a silver coin) and you will find yourself dreaming of your future husband. Apple bobbing could also be used to predict the future. Whoever managed to get first bite of the apple would be first to marry.
Even two of Halloween’s staple activities – carving Jack o’ Lanterns and trick or treating have their surprising origins and superstition and folklore.
The carving of a pumpkin into a jack o’ lantern was actually once the carving of a turnip, and originated in Ireland with the legend of Stingy Jack. A mean drunkard, Jack was nevertheless known for his cunning. One day his actions gained the attention of the Devil, who decided to claim Jack’s soul for hell. Confronted by the Devil, Jack grew terrified, falling to his knees and begging for one last request. The Devil agreed and, perhaps predictably, Jack asked for a final drink. The Devil agreed, and accompanied Jack to a pub.
One drink soon turned to another and at the end of the night, Jack revealed that he had no money to pay their tab. He convinced the Devil to transform into a silver coin that could be used to pay for their drinks. The Devil agreed and once transformed, Jack immediately put the coin in his pocket. In the same pocket, he kept a crucifix, and the Devil found himself unable to transform back. Jack kept the Devil trapped for some time, eventually releasing him under the promise that the Devil would not bother Jack for another year.
Once the year was up, the Devil retuned once more to take Jack’s soul. Jack however, managed to outsmart him again, this time trapping the Devil at the top of an apple tree. Enraged and, probably tired of being outsmarted, this time the Devil agreed not to take Jack’s soul at all. He was released and, Jack was free to go on his way.
Eventually, Stingy Jack died. He travelled up to Heaven but found the gates barred. His life had been too sinful for them to let him in. With considerable reluctance, Jack turned away and travelled down to Hell. To his great surprise, those gates were barred also. The Devil had sworn to never take Jack’s soul, and he stuck to his word. Jack was barred entrance to any afterlife, and condemned to wander the world for eternity. Before he left, Jack begged the Devil for a light, and the Devil gave him one burning ember from hell. Too hot to hold, Jack hollowed out a turnip and placed the ember inside. Those who see distant lights at night are said to be seeing the flickers of Jack’s lantern.
Carving a turnip and placing a candle inside was thought to keep restless spirits – such as Jack’s – at bay, and these ‘Jack o’ Lanterns’ were placed outside houses to protect them. When this tradition travelled to America, the native pumpkin – which was larger and easier to carve – was used instead and has now become one of the iconic symbols of Halloween.
Another Halloween tradition that has its roots in history is trick-or-treating. Gaining popularity after World War Two, a tradition that involves children dressing in costume and knocking on doors for sweets may seem modern, but does still echo long held traditions that once took place across the whole winter season.
It is said that the ancient Celts would disguise themselves with animal pelts and costumes on the night of Samhain, so that malicious spirits would not recognise them. In the Middle Ages it was traditional on All Soul’s Day (2nd November) for poor people to visit the homes of the wealthy and receive a ‘soul cake’ – a small round cake with a cross on top – in exchange they would pray for the souls of that house’s departed family members. In Scotland, people would go guising, dressing up in costume and knocking on doors to sing a song, tell a poem or give some other performance in order to receive a gift. A similar tradition took place in England at Christmas time. Called mumming, this involved people in disguises putting on performances at others homes. The homeowner would need to guess who lay beneath the costume, and only then would offer the mummers food and drink. Trick-or-treating seems to combine many elements of these different traditions, with fancy-dress visitors, offerings of sweets and a ‘trick’ rather than a performance.
Nowadays many see Halloween not as a religious or superstitious day but as a day of celebration, a day to decorate your home, watch scary movies and eat lots of chocolate. But for those that do believe in ghosts, Halloween is the day to keep an eye out. Because Halloween is the day that you might just see one.
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