Halloween- What does it mean?
Halloween is coming soon so get your masks, outfits and fake blood ready!
For good reason everyone, young and old, looks forward to the night of ghost, goblins and everything ghoulish.
But where did this tradition start? Don’t you think it’s a bit strange that for one night we celebrate everything that we fear on any other?
Interested? Then allow us to “treat” you with the knowledge of how this “tricky” holiday came to be.
Samhain- The Beginning
It is believed that Halloween first originated over 2,000 years ago. People in the area that is now known as Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France celebrated a Celtic festival known as “Samhain” (sow-in).
The people of this area decided to celebrate the New Year on November 1st as this day marked the end of summer and the harvest. This of course led to the beginning of the dark, cold winter. This time of year was often associated with human death and disease.
The night before the new year was believed to be special. Our world and the world of the dead would collide.
October 31st became Samhain, the time when ghosts came back to roam the earth and damage crops. Druids were thought to have stronger predictions during this time and many relied on these prophecies for the long winter days.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires where people would burn crops and animals as sacrifices o the Celtic gods. During the event people would wear costumes, typically of animal heads and attempted to read each other’s futures.
The change In Tradition
This tradition changed around 43 AD when the roman emperor had conquered most of the Celtic’s territory. Due to Roman imperialism Samhain was combined with two other traditions, Feralia, a day to commemorate the passing of the dead, and the honouring of Pomona, the Goddess of fruit and trees.
Later Christianity began to take hold and, starting as “All Martyrs day”, the holiday was changed to November 1st and eventually became “All souls day”, where many Celtic traditions, such as costumes and bonfires, were returned to the holiday. The night before it, traditionally the night of Samhain in the Celtic region, began to be called “All-hallows Eve” and, eventually, “Halloween”.
Soon as the world became more connected the holiday became known for its sense of community, family, games and celebrations that we know and love it for today.
Got it? There will be a test
Trick or Treating
As stated previously, Samhain involved the idea of the dead mingling with the world of the living. This superstition stated that visiting ghosts could disguise themselves as people and upsetting them would lead to dire consequences.
Another Celtic myth suggests that dressing up as a ghoul fooled the spirits into thinking you were one of them, leading to the much loved tradition of Halloween costumes.
The idea of sweets being handed out came as a response to radical vandalism and acted as a way of calming the public, focusing on a more positive element of society.
“Devil’s night” also has its fair share of troublemakers. It’s undeniable that teenage pranks have been a Halloween staple for a lot of the modern era. From egging to toilet-papering houses, there always seems to be some group of rebellious teens dedicated to peeving off the locals.
Samhain always had an element of light pranking associated with it, although by the 1920’s-30’s Halloween became synonymous with rioting and acts of vandalism, possibly due to the Great Depression. As noted above this violence was seemingly replaced by the tradition of trick or treating.
For an activity so fun and joyous, the carving of jack o lanterns actually has a very sinister origin.
A Celtic fable tells of a drunken farmer named Jack whom, after successfully tricking the devil, is denied access to hell and heaven respectively.
Jack, trapped to wander purgatory, decided to craft a lantern from a turnip and a burning lump of coal from hell. It was believed that Jack used the lantern to guide his lost soul.
Replace the turnip with a pumpkin (due to shortages in the states) and you have the basis for the tradition. The lanterns are used to guide lost spirits home whilst their scary expressions are used to ward off evil entities.
Onto the beak nosed, wrinkly, broomstick holding women we’ve come to know as witches. In fact the image we’ve been fed of the typical “witch” actually stems from a pagan goddess known as “the crone”.
This deity, honoured during Samhain also went by the name of “earth mother” and “the old one”. She symbolized change, wisdom and the changing of the seasons.
It’s unfortunate that with the effect of time this symbol of kindness and prosperity has been morphed into the menacing and cackling guise of “the witch”.
The crone’s cauldron was believed to hold souls after death, she would stir the pot to allow old souls to become reincarnated whilst allowing new souls to enter.
As for the flying broomstick, back in the time when the elderly and introverted were accused of witchcraft, many of the implicated used brooms in the place of walking sticks, due to poverty. Folklore tells of multiple women rubbing a “flying” potion on their bodies, causing hallucinations and giving the illusion of flight.
You’re more than likely to see at least one decoration this year which includes a black cat. These symbols of bad luck gained their reputation back in the times where witch hunts were commonplace, the Dark Ages.
During this time Elderly and solidary women were often accused of witchcraft which terrorized the land. The women’s cats were also often dragged into the mix, being known as “familiars”- demonic animals gifted by the devil himself.
A similar myth claims that he devil morphed into a cat to socialise with his minions.
Though nowadays, black cats aren’t always tied to bad luck, in fact some people in the world believe that crossing their path is a good omen. Which is it for you?
Much like the black cats, bats were seen as bad omens and a companion to the dreaded witches. (Is it just coincidence they rhyme?) One myth stated that a bat circling above your house three times was a sign that someone within would die.
A different belief claimed that if a bat enters your house on Halloween then it’s a sign that ghouls had allowed it to enter. Perhaps this is linked to the old belief that vampires required invitation to a household to enter?
Perhaps the creepiest of our three animals so far, these common sources of fear have a fairly obvious reason for being included in the Halloween roster. Once again, these little critters were believed to have connections to the hags of old.
One superstition claims that if you saw a spider fall into a candle and burn up then witches were nearby whilst another theory claims that if you saw a spider on Halloween night it means the spirit of a loved one is looking over you.
A comforting thought for a change.
The traditional Halloween colour palette of black and orange actually stemmed from the pagan celebration of autumn and the harvest.
The orange symbolizes the colours of the crops and the turning leaves, whilst black represents the “death” of summer and the changing season.
Over time other colours have joined the Halloween palette, these include: purple, yellow and green.
Many of the traditions associated to the ghostly holiday have been forgotten, whether that due to necessity or the public’s lack of spirituality is unknown.
For example, the whole concept of lost spirits finding their way home has been all but forgotten in contemporary times. People used to feel close to their dead relatives during the holiday and performed many actions to attract their attention, such as laying the table for them and leaving treats at the doorstop in case they passed by.
Surprisingly, a lot of Halloween’s old rituals involved young women trying to identify their future husbands and reassuring them that by next Halloween they would be married. Rituals for this included: burning nuts with men’s names and picking the one which burnt to ash instead of popping, as well as inducing the woman with a dream of her future husband with the help of a nutty concoction.
Other versions of our scary holiday also exist, similar in some ways yet different in many others. Two Notable examples are:
“El Dia De Los Muertos” – (The day of the dead) this holiday among Spanish-speaking nations is full of joy and happiness, where people celebrate the lives of loved ones whom have pass away. Officially commemorated on November 2nd (all Saints Day), the three day celebration takes place on October 31st. Many families honour the dead by building altars and giving offerings such as photos and water. The holiday has a very bright and colourful theme juxtaposed with images of skulls. It’s worth noting that this holiday is typically celebrated during the day also.
“Obon Festival” – This Japanese and, traditionally Buddhist, holiday is dedicated to the spirits of ancestors. Special foods are prepared for the event and red lanterns are hung everywhere. Other lanterns are filled with a candle and then set afloat on rivers and seas. Memorial stones are cleaned and community dances are performed. This holiday, alternatively, takes place during July or August.