On 31st October, we celebrate Halloween, thought to be the one night of the year when ghosts, witches, and fairies are especially active.
Why do we Celebrate Halloween?
The easy answer to this question is that no one really knows the origins of Halloween.
What we do know for sure is that Halloween is on the eve of a major Catholic festival, All Saints (1st November) and the eve of the pagan Celtic festival known as Samhain.
The three days between 31st October and 2nd November see pagan and Christian celebrations intertwined in a fascinating way and is a perfect example of superstition struggling with religious belief.
Currently, it is widely thought that Halloween originated as a pagan Celtic festival of the dead related to the Irish and Scottish Samhain, but there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead in pre-Christian times.
Read on for some superstitions and traditions of Halloween.
Trick or Treat
Many of today’s Halloween traditions are associated with America, however they originated in Celtic history. For example the custom of ‘trick or treat’ originated in England as ‘Mischief Night’ when children declared one ‘lawless night’ of unpunished pranks (usually May Day eve or Halloween). In the late 19thC, the Irish belief that ‘the little people’ or fairies played pranks on Halloween and led boys and young men to carry out practical jokes on that night. Nowadays, children dress up in costumes and go from door to door where they knock on the door, or ring the doorbell, and yell ‘Trick or Treat!’ The idea being that the owners of the house give the children a treat (sweets or money) or the children will play a trick on them – I believe that in legal terminology this is called extortion!
It was the Irish who brought the tradition of the Jack-O’-Lantern to America. The practice of carving Jack-O’-Lanterns goes back to the Irish legend of Jack, a lazy but shrewd farmer who tricked the Devil into a tree, then refused to let the Devil down unless the Devil agreed to never let Jack into Hell. The story goes that the Devil agreed, but when Jack died, he was too sinful to be allowed into Heaven, and the Devil wouldn’t let him into Hell. So, Jack carved out one of his turnips, put a candle inside it, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place. He was known as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack-O’-Lantern.
Nowadays the typical Jack-O’-Lantern is a pumpkin whose top and stem have been carved off and inner membranes and seeds scooped out to leave a hollow shell. Sections of a side are carved out to make a design, usually a face. A light source (traditionally a candle) is placed inside the pumpkin and the top is put back into place (often after a ‘chimney’ is carved in the lid in order to allow heat to escape). The light illuminates the design from the inside. Jack-O’-Lanterns are generally made for Halloween, and were originally made from large turnips, beets and swedes, before the introduction of the now more familiar pumpkin from the Americas.
Superstitions Associated with Halloween
It was believed to be the night when the barrier between the living world and that of the spirits was at its weakest. In the old days people lit bonfires to ward away evil spirits and in some places they used to jump over the fire to bring good luck.
Halloween was also a time to honour the dead, and divine the future.
The hazel nut was sacred to ancient Celts, they were believed to have divining powers and was sacred to poets. The magic power of this nut was considered to be especially powerful on Halloween – and was often used in marriage divinations.
Robert Burns wrote about this Halloween custom in Scotland: “…Some merry, friendly, countra folks Together did convene, To burn their nuts, an’ pu their stocks, An’ haud their Halloween Fu’ blithe that night.”
Hazel nuts were sometimes named after an individual, and then thrown into the bonfire on Samhain eve. The manner in which it burned would determine the ‘fate’ for that person for the next year.
Float a number of apples in a bowl of water (supposedly representing the Cauldron of rebirth), and try to catch one using only your teeth. When you have caught one, peel it in one unbroken strip, and throw the strip of peel over your left shoulder. The letter the peel forms is the initial of your future husband or wife.
Place two nuts (such as conkers) on a fire. Give the nuts the names of two possible lovers and the one that cracks first will be the one.
It’s traditional for people (especially children) to dress up at Halloween. In the past this wasn’t done just for fun, it was thought that the costume would confuse any evil spirits so they wouldn’t play any pranks on you.
Nowadays Halloween costumes can range from cute to downright scary. The simplest costume has to be draping a white sheet over your head and making a couple of holes for the eyes, but a lot of people go all out as vampires, witches, or a character from a horror film.
Images: © Elena Schweitzer, shutterstock.com