Halloween History and Traditions

October 28th, 2012
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It’s Halloween weekend. Trick or Treat’ers will be arriving shortly, and I’m preparing to carve Jack ‘o Lanterns with my wife. I find myself sitting here, thinking about why we do the things we do on Halloween. Being a Halloween enthusiast, I know many of the reasons behind Halloween customs. I decided writing a few of them in this blog might be a good way to fritter away some spare time while sharing knowledge which, for 11 months of the year, is basically useless.

What is Halloween?

I think the first thing to discuss is why we have Halloween in the first place, the “reason for the season” if you will. While the current holiday has absorbed traditions from many ancient holidays, the root holiday is considered the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “sah-win,” not “sam hane,” as many erroneously believe). It was a festival meant to celebrate the harvest  and mark the beginning of winter, which meant short, cold days, and long dark, deadly nights. Not only did winter signify an increase in darkness, it also meant an increase in death. Thanks to modern medicine, electricity, and affordable heat, nowadays winter merely means slippery roads and an annoying flu season for most of the western world. In the ancient world when a common cold could mean death, and you had a finite food source that had to last all season, many could perish before the return of warmth and growing.

Samhain took place during autumn, which is the in-between time between summer and winter. Many ancient Europeans believed that places and times which were in-between, or transitional, allowed magic beings and spirits to enter into our world. Samhain was a time when the barrier between our world and the next was thinner, and thus faeries, spirits, and specters of deceased loved ones could roam freely about the country side. This was both a time of celebration and apprehension . It was a time to celebrate the harvest, but it was also when the future seemed most uncertain. Also, because the vale was so thin between worlds, it was a time of fortune telling and divination.

The word Halloween comes from All Hallow’s Eve, which is the night before the Western Christian feast of All Hallows (or All Saint’s Day). Many believe the Feast of All Hallow’s occurs when it does as a way of making the then new religion of Christianity less foreign to Europe’s former Pagan population.

 

Me, playing dead at Madam Belle’s in Germantown, Wisconsin. Human mortality: the reason for the season.

 

Halloween Traditions

Bonfires

Many neighborhoods and communities have bonfires on Halloween. . Some sources attribute this as a hold over from a time when people still worshipped the Syrian sun god Baal. The fires were meant to represent the sun, and thus, honor him. This tradition would predate Samhain, which would make it one of the holiday’s oldest customs. Fires were also thought to be used as a way to scare off any supernatural being which might wish to bring harm or misfortune. During the spread of Christianity in Europe, people would gather around communal bonfires and feast and make merry all night, often times discussing supernatural topics (i.e., telling ghost stories). They’d do this ’til sunrise, fearing to sleep because of the ghosts and goblins which were abroad.

Nuts and Apples

These are traditional autumn foods. They became a part of what is now Halloween during the Roman occupation of the British Isles. The Roman Feast of Pomona (goddess of gardens and orchards) was held near the same time of Samhain. Many Pomona customs merged with Samhain traditions. Many people roasted nuts over a fire. As they roasted, if the nuts stayed together, that meant so would your family. Young girls would throw nuts into a fire, naming each one after a potential suitor. The nut which burned longest would  indicate who the girl’s spouse would be. A belief arose that eating an apple could hold bad spirits at bay. There was also a belief that if a young girl ate an apple in front of a mirror, she could see the face of her future husband.

Costumes

Masquerading or guising on Halloween comes from the belief that wearing a disguise could hide you from wicked souls seeking revenge, or to frighten or confuse otherworldly entities. While costumes are now meant as fun distraction, they originally served a more serious purpose.

Pranks

I think most everyone reading this has soaped a window, toilet papered a house, or at least jumped out of a shadowy corner and scared a friend S-less. This is the sort of mischief said to be caused by not-quite-evil, but still annoying, entities. As pagan beliefs became a thing of the past, children began to prank each other, and adults, as a way of making light of more serious, ancient beliefs.

Me, dressed as a zombie for Halloween, 2011. It successful kept other zombies away, and allowed me to scare my friends. Two traditions taken care of at once.

Trick or Treating

This custom has many attributed origins. In ancient Ireland, there would be a “White Mare procession,” where someone would dress in a white sheet, carry a horse’s skull, and lead a parade of children. Gifts were given to the children, who’d say prayers to keep bad spirits away. In Medieval Europe, impoverished adults and children alike, would go “souling,” singing songs and offering prayers to the dead on All Hallow’s in return for soul cakes.  On the night of the Feast of Samhain, people would go door-to-door collecting provisions for the feast. They’d often be dressed in costumes to confuse the supernatural beings lurking about that night. Gifts of food were also left out for real faeries and goblins who were roaming about in autumn… that needs little elaboration. I’m certain you’ll see at least one 8 year-old Tinker Bell or Green Goblin knock on your door this season, asking for Reeses Cups.

Jack ‘O’ Lanterns

Carving a Jack ‘O’ Lantern was yet another way to frighten away spirits. In Ireland, These were originally lanterns made from carved turnips. The light, as well as the ghoulish faces carved into the lanterns, was another way to scare off trouble making creatures. In America, the custom became carving pumpkins, likely because it was much easier than carving a turnip.

Halloween Parties

It should be obvious why we hold Halloween parties, since the day originated as a feast/festival. Food and alcohol were in abundance, and shared by all. Long ago it was also believed that deceased loved ones would return to their former homes to visit their descendants. Families would gather around their hearth and entertain these ghosts, giving them offerings of food and drink as well.

In Summation

Was this enlightening? Maybe. Interesting, definitely. While I don’t have any particular pagan belief, I still partake in most of these traditions (except the divination stuff… that’s a girl’s thing, apparently). Then why do I love Halloween so much? Because in my humble opinion it’s the greatest holiday ever. You can dress as a zombie, tell ghost stories, watch copious amounts of horror movies, play pranks, and party fairly hard, without getting judged too harshly by anyone. To me, Halloween also allows lots of important personal reflection: contemplating the existence of the invisible world (ghosts, goblins, and monsters); remembering loved ones who are no longer with me; and laughing in the face of my own mortality by making light of death (you know, mocking Friday the 13th Parts I-X).

It’s the greatest time of year, of that, I have no doubt.

In addition to being a Halloween enthusiast,  J. Nathan Couch is also the author of the self-published book Washington County Paranormal: A Wisconsin Legend Trip. The book is a collection of essays about locations in southeastern Wisconsin reputed to have real ghosts, curses, and monsters. He (who is me) also maintains this website. Support his (my) book, by buying a copy, if you liked this article.

Cover Design by Charlie Hintz of Mental Shed Studios

 

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