will look a little bit different this year again.
Halloween draws from both Celtic and Christian traditions.
While it's always had a morbid, spooky vibe, the festivities have changed quite a lot over the centuries.
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But where did all these strange practices come from? Turns out, a lot of these customs date back centuries. The holiday has changed over time, transforming from an ancient tradition to the flashy fright fest we know and love today.Let's take a look at the origins of some of our favorite traditions.
is a pagan religious festival originating from an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. In modern times, Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “SAH-win”) is usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in “the dark half of the year.” Celebrants believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and denizens of the Otherworld.
Ancient Celts marked Samhain as the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. During this time of year, hearth fires in family homes were left to burn out while the harvest was gathered.
After the harvest work was complete, celebrants joined with Druid priests to light a community fire using a wheel that would cause friction and spark flames. The wheel was considered a representation of the sun and used along with prayers. Cattle were sacrificed, and participants took a flame from the communal bonfire back to their home to relight the hearth.
Early texts present Samhain as a
mandatory celebration lasting three days and three nights where the community was required to show themselves to local kings or chieftains.
Failure to participate was believed to result in punishment from the gods, usually illness or death.
The word 'Halloween'
was first popularized in a poem. Scottish poet Robert Burns
helped to popularize the word "Halloween" with his
1785 poem of the same name. So where does the name itself come from?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it's actually two words smushed together. "Hallow" — or holy person — refers to the saints celebrated on All Saints' Day, which is November 1. The "een" part of the word is a contraction of "eve" — or evening before.
So basically, Halloween is just an old-fashioned way of saying "the night before All Saints' Day" — also called Hallowmas or All Hallows' Day. This comes from the fact November 1 is All Saints' Day, a Christian feast dedicated to celebrating the faithful departed, including all the saints. In Christian tradition, people start celebrating major feasts the night before they take place — take Christmas Eve, for instance. The day's morbid traditions go back to ancient times. sHistorians have linked Halloween to Samhain,
celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
According to Celtic mythology, the veil between the Otherworld and our world thins during Samhain, making it easier for spirits and the souls of the dead to return. People would make offerings of food in order to get on the good side of these spirits and departed ancestors, Allhallowtide, which includes All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and the subsequent All Souls' Day, was initially celebrated in the spring, during the early years of the Church. Pope Gregory IV switched it to the current date in 837,
His reasons were unclear, although influence from Celtic factions of the church and the fact that it makes sense to commemorate death during the fall are possibilities. Bobbing for apples
used to be more than just a splashy party game. Halloween has come to be most closely associated with the pumpkin, but apples have played an important role in its history. After all, apples make numerous appearances in Celtic mythology and are often connected to the Otherworld.
Bobbing for apples remains a popular party game. The reason? Well, the practice used to be considered a form of divination performed around Halloween,
That's right — people would dunk their heads in a vat of water and try to bite into floating fruit in a quest to figure out their future spouse. Ladies would mark an apple and toss it into the tub. The thinking was they'd be destined to whoever pulled it out of the water. Jack-o'-lanterns symbolize a fateful deal with the Devil sIf you ever meet the Devil on a darkened road, don't try to trick him into climbing a tree. Otherwise, you might end up like Irish folk figure Jack O'Lantern. Modern day, intricately designed pumpkin creations certainly make for
But back in the day, folks in Ireland dubbed their carved, fiery turnips "jack-o'-lanterns" thanks in part to an ominous legend. One night, a conniving local drunkard named Jack trapped the Prince of Darkness in a tree by hacking a sign of the cross into the bark. In exchange for letting Satan climb down, Jack had him vow to never claim his soul.
Jack proceeded to act like a jerk his whole life. When he died, he was not allowed in heaven. So he tried to return to his old pal, the Devil. But Satan upheld his end of the deal, hurling a piece of coal from hell at the dead man for good measure. Left without anywhere to go, Jack placed the blazing coal in a turnip to use as a lantern. The dead man then set out, doomed to wander until he can find an eternal resting place. Trick-or-treating has ancient precedent
but the candy part didn't come about until much later.Modern day trick-or-treating is a confluence of various traditions. Ancient Celts dressed up as evil spirits in order to confuse demons, In medieval England, "soulers" would go around begging rich folk for "soul cakes" on Halloween. Instead of threatening to play tricks, however, they'd pray for peoples' souls in return for the cake, according to
Throughout medieval Europe, mummering
dressing in disguises and visiting neighborhoods while dancing, playing music, and doing tricks was popular on major feast days. TIME reported Irish and Scottish immigrants brought
"souling" to the States in the 1800s.
But modern day trick-or-treating didn't catch on until the 1920s.
The practice was pretty controversial into the 1950s, though. According to the American Journal of Play's
many adults raised "stern objections" to trick-or-treating over the decades, as it was often viewed as a form of extortion. The "Bloody Mary" ritual has unclear origins (and various practices). Late folklorist and UC Berkeley professor Alan Dundes wrote an article titled "Bloody Mary in the Mirror:
A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety" about the various origins and practices of the "Bloody Mary" ritual, also known as "Mary Worth" and "Mary Whales." Many versions of the ritual include the elements of a girl peering into a mirror (often in a bathroom), darkness, blood, chanting, and the appearance of the cursed "Mary." Black cats have been associated with the supernatural for hundreds of years.
on Halloween. "In the Middle Ages, black cats were often portrayed as the familiars of witches, which is likely to be the origin of the distrust with which they are regarded in America, where early Puritan settlers rejected anything associated with the Devil and witch," Chloe Rhodes wrote in "Black Cats and Evil Eyes: A Book on Old-fashioned Superstition." The connections between humans and cats can be traced back to some of the world’s earliest civilizations, most notably, ancient Egypt, where cats were considered divine symbols. Cats also made an appearance in Greek mythology, specifically Hecate, goddess of magic, sorcery, the moon and witchcraft, was described as having a cat as both a pet and a familiar (a supernatural creature that assists a witch, according to European folklore).
Written records link black cats to the occult as far back as the 13th century when an official church document called “Vox in Rama” was issued by Pope Gregory IX on June 13, 1233. “In it, black cats were declared an incarnation of Satan,” says Layla Morgan Wilde, author of Black Cats Tell: True Tales And Inspiring Images. “The decree marked the beginning of the inquisition and church-sanctioned heretic and/or witch hunts. Initially it was designed to squash the growing cult of Luciferians in Germany, but quickly spread across Europe.”
Cats and Witches Seen as Threats to Early Christian Church
A Halloween postcard from the early 1900s featuring a witch, a black cat and spirits.
In addition to their early association with Satan, cats also became inextricably linked to witches in medieval Europe. witches were the pre-Christian pagan practitioners of Europe.
Although the early Christian church in Europe coexisted with witches, as the church gained power, she says that they saw witches as their direct competition in gaining the hearts and minds of the people. That’s when the church began hunting, persecuting, torturing and killing witches in vast numbers, she explains.
“Witches honored the natural world, having deep respect for plants and animals,” says Fallingstar. “Affection between human and animal therefore began to be seen as 'diabolical', or devilish, and the old lady with her cats became seen as suspect.”
But it wasn’t only the connection they fabricated between witches, cats, and the devil that the early Christians feared: they also saw them both as threats. “Cats, like the women accused of witchcraft, tend to exhibit a healthy disrespect of authority,” she notes. “They don't fawn, like dogs, upon even the unworthy. In the church, neither independent women, nor independent animals, were to be tolerated.”
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