The Olden Days of Halloween
Jordan Stowe - Managing Editor
Straddling the line between fall and winter, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition. It is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which is a festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the "darker half" of the year, when people would light bonfires, leave food on the doorsteps for the good spirits, and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts.
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as All Saints Day - a time to honor all good spirits - that incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve, and later, Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a secular, community-based event characterized by child-friendly activities such as trick-or-treating. In a number of countries around the world, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, people continue to usher in the winter season with gatherings costumes and sweet treats .
When the Romans took over the Celt’s territory they added a few new holidays themselves. One was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
Now you may be wondering how did Halloween come to America? Well, celebration of Halloween was limited in colonial New England because of the belief systems there. The first celebrations included “play parties,” when the people would celebrate the ending of the harvest, tell ghost stories, and make mischief. But many new immigrants coming in brought Halloween with them. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house-to-house asking for food or money, which eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. But when things got too scary, parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” out of Halloween celebrations.
The American Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating probably dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given food or money.
The tradition of dressing in costume on Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, came about because people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they went out after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.
Halloween Superstition has always been a holiday filled with mystery, magic and superstition. We avoid crossing paths with black cats, afraid that they might bring us bad luck. We try not to walk under ladders, try to avoid breaking mirrors, stepping on cracks in the road or spilling salt. But what about the Halloween traditions and beliefs that today’s trick-or-treaters have forgotten all about? Many of these obsolete rituals focused on the future instead of the past. Many past traditions had to do with helping young women identify their future husbands and reassuring them that they would someday, with luck, be married by next Halloween. In 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it. In Scotland, fortune-tellers recommended that an eligible young woman name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding represented the girl’s future husband. Other rituals were more competitive. At some Halloween parties, the first guest to find a burr on a chestnut hunt would be the first to marry. At others, the first successful apple-bobber would be the first down the aisle.
Many wonder where jack-o'-lanterns come from. Well, in Ireland and Scotland, hollowed-out turnips with embers or candles inside became a very popular Halloween decoration a few hundred years ago. Tradition held that they would ward off Stingy Jack, an evil spirit, and other spirits on Halloween. They also served as representations of the souls of the dead. Irish families who emigrated to America brought the tradition with them, but they replaced the turnips with pumpkins. People began to carve frightening faces and other designs into their jack-o'-lanterns thinking they would scare the spirits away.