Traditions of Today
When Halloween approaches, we see houses being decorated with Jack-O’-Lanterns, black cats, witches, ghosts, and bundles of corn stalks placed at doorways. On Halloween evening, we greet youngsters at our doors dressed in costumes, as we hand them candy in response to their little voices saying, “Trick or treat?”.
Sometimes we follow these traditions by going through the motions without exploring their origins and Halloween certainly has interesting origins filled with much symbolism.
Celtic Origins & Traditions
Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, traces back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain that was celebrated October 31 – November 1. The Celts were mostly farming and agricultural people and the Pre-Christian Celtic year was structured based on the growing seasons. Samhain was considered the Celtic New Year, celebrating the ending of the summer harvest and the beginning of the dark winter season.
Samhain was a spiritual day filled with mysticism as the deceased, and the living were more strongly revealed to one another than any other day of the year. It was believed that on the evening of October 31st, the ghosts of the dead would walk among the people and revisit the mortal world, blurring boundaries between the living and the dead.
Bonfires and Jack-O’-Lanterns
Samhain was celebrated with large bonfires that were lit in the villages to provide protection from evil spirits. Traditionally, the fires were lit on a high point of the property, away from the houses. All household fires were put out, and new fires were lit from these bonfires. Druids (Celtic leaders) commonly led the Samhain celebrations and ensured that each house had a fire that was re-lit from the embers of the sacred bonfire. Bonfires still remain a tradition in some regions.
The Samhain Festival in Edinburgh is an annual event marking the Celtic New Year. Presented by the Beltane Society, the spectacular celebration features displays of fire, drumming, dancing, theatre, and fireworks. Click here for details about this event.
On Halloween evening, lanterns were traditionally placed near the front door, hoping the glowing faces would ward off any evil spirits. Lanterns or fire torches were often carried around the edges of the property to provide further protection. Other tales speak of “neep” lanterns (turnip lanterns) being placed outside as a guide lamp for dead ancestors to find food that was left out for them. The influence in American culture adopted pumpkins as the common source for lanterns, known as Jack-O’-Lanterns. Pumpkins are also easier to carve! Whether a pumpkin or a turnip, the lanterns are made by scooping out the center and then carving a spooky or humorous face into the skin. A candle is then placed inside to make a lantern.
The Legend of “Stingy Jack”
People have been carving Jack-O’-Lanterns for centuries, but where does the name originate from? As Irish myths would have it, there was a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack” who invited the Devil to have a drink with him. Being stingy (and a heavy drinker), Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin so that Jack could use it to buy more drinks. The devil agreed, but Jack decided to keep the money and put it in his pocket next to a silver cross, preventing the Devil from changing back into his original form.
Eventually, Jack freed the Devil under the stipulation that the Devil would not bother Jack for ten years. Also, if Jack were to die, the Devil would not claim his soul. When ten years passed, Jack encountered the Devil once again. The ten-year deal was up, and Stingy Jack had to come up with a plan. He tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved signs of crosses in the bark around the base of the tree and blocked the Devil from coming down until he renewed his promise to Jack to protect his soul from entering Hades.
When Stingy Jack eventually died, he was turned away at the gates of heaven because of his deceitful and sinful lifestyle. The devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul from entering hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip, and as legend would have it, Jack has been roaming the earth with it ever since.
Trick or Treating in Costumes and Masks
Celts would wear masks or other disguises when they left their houses on Samhain night to ward off evil and to avoid being recognized by ghosts that might be seeking after them. It is quite likely that this is where the tradition of wearing costumes on Halloween derived from.
Many believe the tradition of trick or treating dates to Celtic belief that on Samhain (Halloween) ghosts attempted to return to their old homes. When ghosts appeared, people would offer them tasty food to keep them happy, and in a good mood, so they wouldn’t frighten the members of the household or spook the livestock. If evil spirits weren’t treated properly or sent away, it was feared they would play tricks on people. Children arriving at houses in disguise would receive an offering to show gratitude for their help in warding off the evil spirits.
Bobbing for Apples
Bobbing for apples, or “dookin’ for apples” is a party game that most are familiar with, where you remove a floating apple from a basin of water without using your hands. While some speared the apples with a fork in their teeth, most tried getting the apple by biting it with their teeth. This tradition is rooted from Pagan times as ancient Celts believed apples were a sacred fruit.
Rome ruled Celtic territories between 43-410 A.D. and had similar traditions as the Celts. As the Roman and Celtic cultures co-existed, many of their traditions were blended. Some believe that bobbing for apples was inspired by Pomona, Roman Goddess of fruiting trees and orchards. Romans also honored the spirit of the dead, especially relatives, with a celebration called Feralia that lasted for nine days (February 13 – February 21).
Witches and Black Cats
Samhain also has Wiccan roots dating back to pre-Christianity. It was an important holiday that was held sacred to witches where it was believed that witches would ride their broomsticks at night and could change themselves into black cats. We see these symbols carried on today with black cats and witches represented in Halloween decorations as well as costumes.
At night, many sought out spirits in search of indications of what the future held for things such as crop expectations and romance insights.
Stalks – While a person was blindfolded or with both eyes shut, stalks of the kale plant were pulled from the ground after dark. The length and straightness of these randomly chosen stalks were said to represent the look of their future spouse (in length and straightness). The taste of the stalk would determine whether they will be sweet or sour. The amount of dirt that stuck to the stalks would indicate wealth, quite possibly in the form or a generous dowry. The stems were then placed over the front door, and the first person to walk under them would be the name of their future wife or husband. In modern tradition, we see this commonly represented in bundles of corn stocks, decoratively tied together and placed on or near the front doors.
Mirrors – Women would stand in front of a mirror, holding a candle in a dark room, where it was believed the face of their future husband would appear before them.
Nuts – An engaged couple would each place a nut on a fire. How the nut reacted to the fire determined the tone of the marriage. If the nut spit and spat, they were in for a stormy marriage. One could only hope for a quietly burning nut to indicate happiness.
Another tradition involved gathering several nuts, naming each on as a possible suitor, before placing them on the fire. Seeing how each nut reacted would indicate the future of each suitor.
Sometimes, two nuts were placed to represent a boy and a girl. If both nuts burned, it indicated a happy marriage. If one happened to roll away, it suggested these two would not be suited for one another.
See, the whole dating and marriage thing is just nuts! 🙂
Celebrate Your Traditions
When I was a child, I was unaware of all the history surrounding the Halloween traditions. It was simply a fun evening, out with your friends, going door-to-door collecting candy while admiring all the spooky decorations. Besides scoring a lot of candy, it was also a great thrill to dress up in your costume, enjoy some spooky moments, and witness a few neighborhood pranks or “tricks.”
Halloween was always a lot fun, even during the few years the plastic face masks with elastic straps were popular. Behind that mask, it was sweaty, hard to breathe (semi-suffocating) and reeked strongly of plastic, but we didn’t have a care in the world on Halloween night, and it was a blast!
No matter what your beliefs are or how you decorate, we hope you enjoy your Halloween and Samhain celebrations!