Halloween sums up images of pumpkins, costumes, ‘trick or treaters’ amongst many others. It is a time for ...
stories, games, fun and spookiness ... but if you have ever wondered where the customs that we indulge in today have come from then read on!
It is hard to attribute Halloween customs to a specific tradition and it would generally be more accurate to recognise that the customs we keep today have stemmed from a variety of sources and festivals but what follows is some of the more accepted explanations.
Pumpkins / Jack O’Lantern
In Gaelic folklore large turnips, potatoes or beets were carved with faces and placed in windows with a candle inside to ward off evil spirits said to roam when the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest. Nowadays we carve pumpkins which originated in North America where they were readily available and easier to carve. 99% of all pumpkins sold are used as Halloween Jack O’Lanterns!
Another possible explanation links the symbolism of the lit pumpkin to the remembrance of the souls in purgatory (a Souling custom).
The name Jack O’Lantern comes from an 18th century Irish Folk Tale. A mean and miserable Irishman named Jack tricked the Devil by trapping him in the branches of an apple tree by cutting a cross symbol into its trunk. When Jack died he was refused entry to Heaven due to his mean personality and the Devil refused him access to Hell due to his trickery. Jack was forced to walk the earth until the end of time with his path lit by a coal placed in a hollowed out turnip to keep the evil spirits away. He must still walk to this day………..
Apples / Apple Bobbing
Apples are symbolic with Halloween as it comes in the wake of the annual apple harvest. It is thought that apple bobbing may have originated from the Roman harvest festival that honours the goddess Pomona. This associates apples with female deities and immortality, resurrection and knowledge.
Apple bobbing is where the apples float in a watery tub or basin and the participant must remove an apple with their teeth. Originally this was a game for unmarried people as the first person to successfully remove an apple was believed to be the next to marry.
Halloween costumes originated from the Celts who celebrated Samhain by dressing in elaborate animal skins and heads to disguise themselves as spirits and demons to copy or placate the evil spirits and escape recognition by them as human. Traditionally these are modelled after supernatural figures such as witches, ghosts, and monsters but over time have been extended and Halloween costume parties are common on the weekend closest to Halloween.
‘Trick or Treat’
Love or hate it trick or treating is a practise synonymous with Halloween celebrations today. The phrase first appears in 1927 in Canada and is thought to be derived from the late medieval practise of souling when poor people would go door to door receiving food in return for saying prayers for the dead on All Soul’s Day (November 2nd). Guising in Scotland and Ireland was a practise which is recorded in the 19th century where children disguised in costume would go door to door and offer entertainment of some sort in return for cakes, fruit and money. Trick or treating has also been referred to as ‘Mischief Night’ when the children’s spooky disguise would obtain them food or money from nervous residents!
In 1950 in America trick or treating became a popular tradition to raise money for UNICEF and is still practised in this way today.
Although bonfires today may be more closely related and observed on November 5th the closeness to Halloween is not coincidental as bonfires played a large part in Samhain festivities.
The Celts built fires to frighten away the evil spirits and as a focus for their rituals, celebrations and stories. The word bonfire is thought to be derived from the term ‘bone fire’ as it would be customary for Druids at this time to make sacrifices to pacify their gods. Often the bones of slaughtered cattle would be thrown into the flames to guarantee that the sun would burn brightly after a long winter. People and their livestock would often walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual.
Orange and black are the colours commonly associated with Halloween. Orange symbolises the Fall harvest and black is associated with darkness and death.
Halloween Facts (Good for a pub quiz!)
• Halloween is one of the oldest celebrations in the world. It dates back over 2000 years to the time of the Celts in Britain. • Halloween is also known as All Hallows Eve, Samhain, All Hallowtide, The Feast of the Dead and The Day of the Dead. • In Mexico El Dia ‘The Day of the Dead’ is celebrated on the 31st October. • It is only from the 19th century to modern times that 31st October has increasingly become associated as a night on which supernatural beings are especially active. • The name Halloween (correctly spelt Hallowe’en) comes from All Hallow Even, the night (eve) before All Hallows Day. • Our Celtic ancestors celebrated New Year on November 1st and Samhain marked the end of ‘the season of the sun’. • Halloween is the third-largest party occasion after Christmas and New Year.
• Black cats were originally believed to be witch’s familiars who protected their powers from negative forces.
• If you see a spider on Halloween it is said to be the spirit of a loved one watching over you.
• To meet a witch, reverse your clothes and walk backwards on Halloween.
• On Halloween journeys must be finished before sunset.
• A piece of bread crossed with salt may keep travellers safe on this night.
• If you meet or know someone with a unibrow, hairy palms, tattoos and a long middle finger they may well be a werewolf!
• The Celts believed that on this night the barriers between the worlds were weak and therefore evil spirits may be seen.
• Peeling an apple or combing your hair in front of a candle-lit mirror was believed to show you an image of your future spouse.
• Girls could find out their future husband by placing representing hazelnuts in front of a fire grate and chanting ‘If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die’.
• People believed the Devil was a nut gatherer and used nuts as magic charms.
And remember to beware of Jack and his coal filled lantern….happy Halloween!