Type of Holiday: Folkloric
Date of Observation: October 31
Where Celebrated: United States, British Isles
Symbols and Customs: Bat, Black Cat, Bonfires, Colcannon, Costumes, Goblins, Harvest Sheaves or Harvest Dummy, Jack-O-Lantern, Nuts or Apples, Trick-orTreating, Witch
Colors: Black and orange. Orange, the color of the Jack-O-Lantern, is a symbol of strength and endurance. Along with gold and brown, it stands for autumn and the harvest. Black is primarily a symbol of death and darkness. The black of the witch’s cloak and the black cat are a reminder that Halloween was once a festival of the dead.
Related Holidays: All Souls’ Day, Guy Fawkes Day, Samhain
Halloween can be traced directly back to SAMHAIN, the ancient Celtic harvest festival honoring the Lord of the Dead. Observed on November 1 in the British Isles and parts of what is now France, Samhain also marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year, while Samhain Eve marked the end of the old year. The night was a time of transition between the old and the new, a time when the separation between the world of the living and the world of the dead was very thin. On Samhain Eve the boundary between this world and the netherworld of fairies, gods, spirits, and magic was at its thinnest. As a result, passage between the two dimensions was easier than at any other time. Visitations from the spirits of one’s own departed ancestor, divine beings, or demons were believed to be possible- though not desirable.
The Celts believed that the souls of those who had died during the previous year gathered to travel together to the land of the dead. They lit BONFIRES and sacrificed fruits and vegetables, hoping to win the favor of the spirits of the deceased and to avoid their punishments. Sometimes the living disguised themselves in masks and COSTUMES so that the spirits of the dead wouldn’t recognize them. Charms, spells, and predictions about the future seemed to carry special weight on the eve of Samhain (see NUTS OR APPLES ).
By the fourth century, the Christian church was doing everything it could to stamp out pagan festivals like Samhain, but the Celts wouldn’t give up their ancient rituals and symbols. So the Christian church gave them new names and meanings. November 1 became All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’ Day in England), a celebration of all the Christian saints. The night of October 31 became All Hallows’ Eve (later Halloween). But its association with the supernatural persisted.
Halloween came to America with the Irish immigrants of the 1840s. Their folk customs and beliefs merged with existing agricultural traditions. The early American Halloween, therefore, was not only a time to foretell the future and dabble in the occult but to complete certain seasonal tasks associated with the fall harvest. Over the years the holiday’s agricultural significance faded, and it became primarily a children’s holiday-a time to dress up as the ghosts and GOBLINS their ancestors at one time feared.
SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS
Both positive and negative symbolic meanings have been associated with bats over the centuries. On the one hand, they are eerie creatures, winged mammals who fly around like ghosts at night and sleep hanging upside down during the day. On the other, they are regarded as particularly intelligent. The bat is a symbol of good fortune in China, and in ancient times, placing drops of bat’s blood under a woman’s pillow was believed to guarantee that she would bear many children. Early pictures of WITCHES show them worshipping a horned figure with the wings of a bat-most likely the devil. Before attending a Sabbath or witches’ gathering, they would rub a special ointment containing bats’ blood into their bodies. The wings and entrails of bats went into their brews. The fact that bats could fly around at night made it easy to believe that they possessed mysterious powers. And when they hung upside down to sleep, they draped their wings around their bodies like witches’ cloaks.
Because of their association with witches, the black paper bats that can be seen in Halloween decorations today are symbols of evil and the supernatural.
Long before they were associated with Halloween, cats were believed to have magical powers. The ancient Egyptians worshipped a cat-goddess named Pasht and used cats as a motif in their furniture and jewelry designs. The Celts believed that cats were human beings who had been changed into animals by evil powers. During the ancient celebration of SAMHAIN (see “Origins” above), it was customary to throw cats into the fire.
Back when people feared WITCHES and accused one another of witchcraft, cats were believed to assist witches in carrying out their magic. Since all cats looked black at night, the witch’s cat was always thought of as being black. People were especially wary of cats at Halloween, when witches were known to be out riding the skies on their broomsticks. The fact that cats could see in the dark and move without making any noise added to their reputation as animals that couldn’t be trusted.
With their links to the ancient festival of Samhain and later to witches, cats found a permanent place in the folklore of Halloween. Typically shown with their backs arched and their yellow eyes glaring, the cat is symbolic of the spirit of evil.
Bonfires were an important part of the celebration of Samhain, the ancient festival from which Halloween derived. On a night when evil spirits were believed to be roaming about, a bonfire must have provided a reassuring source of light and comfort. Live animals and even men-usually criminals or prisoners of war-were often burned alive as sacrifices to Saman, the Lord of Death. Bonfires were also kindled on MIDSUMMER DAY and at other seasonal festivals to promote fertility, to protect the fields against thunder and lightning, and to ward off sickness.
Although not part of the American Halloween ritual, bonfires are still common in parts of Ireland on October 31. After the flames have subsided, young people often sit around the glowing embers and eat blackened potatoes that have been roasted on the coals.
Colcannon is a traditional dish made of mashed potatoes, parsnips, and onions that is still served on Halloween in Ireland. Just as tiny figures or beans were hidden in Kings’ Cakes on EPIPHANY and CARNIVAL, small objects are often concealed in the colcannon. If someone finds a coin, it means that he or she will be very wealthy. A ring stands for marriage, a doll for children, and a thimble for spinsterhood.
From ancient times, people have worn masks to frighten off demons and thus avoid droughts, epidemics, and other disasters. Even after the pagan festival of the dead known as SAMHAIN became the Christian All Hallows’ Eve, the people of Europe continued to feel uneasy at this time of year. If they left their homes after dark, they often disguised themselves with masks and costumes so they wouldn’t be recognized by the evil spirits who were out roaming the earth. It was only natural for them to dress up as the ghosts, witches, and GOBLINS they were most fearful of meeting.
Trick-or-treaters in the United States are still apt to dress up in costumes that reflect their culture’s most prevalent obsessions. During the Great Depression, for example, children often disguised themselves as hobos, burglars, pirates, and Indians-in other words, as economic and social outcasts, symbolic of the troubles from which their parents were struggling to escape. In contrast, during the 1980s children were dressing up as television and movie heroes and characters from television commercials, such as E.T., Ninja Turtles, or California Raisins. Witches and skeletons have always been popular costumes, representing the fear of death and evil; but nowadays it is not unusual to see children dressed up as Freddie Krueger and other horror movie characters, ax murderers, or nuclear waste materials. Although they may not do so consciously, children who disguise themselves as the agents of death and destruction are actually helping themselves (and their parents) defuse their deepest fears.
Goblins are symbolic of the evil spirits that were believed to emerge at SAMHAIN and roam the earth at Halloween. They were ugly, menacing creatures who lived underground or in dark places. The word “goblin” is actually the French name for these fairy folk, who resembled leprechauns and pixies. Some scholars say that during the Stone Age a small, dark-skinned people lived in Northern Europe and the British Isles. They wore green clothing so they could conceal themselves in the forests and fields, and they lived in low huts with turf as their roofs. They waylaid travelers, kidnapped children, and sometimes committed murder. Over the centuries, these real dwarf people were absorbed into the Celtic population around them. But they survived on a mythical level as the elves, goblins, and other fairy folk who also lived in low, mound-like houses and wore green clothing. They were symbols of the danger and evil that were believed to threaten people at this time of year.
Harvest Sheaves or Harvest Dummy
Even in urban and suburban areas today, people tend to romanticize the tradition of the harvest and rural lifestyles by decorating their homes with sheaves of Indian corn, gourds, and pumpkins. Usually dried and attached to fence posts, outdoor lighting fixtures, or porch railings, these harvest decorations represent the approaching death of the natural world in the form of winter.
Dummies resembling scarecrows are often placed outside the house, sometimes in the midst of an arrangement that includes cornstalks and pumpkins, symbolizing the harvest that is being brought in from the garden or the fields. Unlike the scarecrow designed to protect the summer crops from hungry birds and animals, however, the Halloween dummy is usually placed near the house, perhaps to protect its inhabitants from the ravages of the approaching winter.
In England and Ireland, people often saw a pale, eerie light moving over bogs and marshes that resembled a lantern held in someone’s hand. They referred to the phenomenon as “Lantern Men,” “Hob-O’-Lantern,” “Jack-O’-Lantern,” or “Will-O’-theWisp.” Similarly, the ghostly lights that seemed to hover over graves dug in marshy places were called “Corpse Candles.” It’s possible that these strange lights were the result of the spontaneous combustion of methane or marsh gas given off by rotting plant and animal life. But some people thought Jack-O-Lanterns were the souls of sinners condemned to walk the earth, or the souls of men who had been lost at sea.
Jack-O-Lantern became a legendary folk figure in Great Britain. He was the spirit of a blacksmith named Jack who was too evil to get into heaven but who was not allowed into hell because he had outwitted the devil. Doomed to wander the earth forever, he scooped up a glowing ember with the vegetable he happened to be eating at the time and used it as a lantern to light his way.
Jack-O-Lanterns, as they are known today-hollowed-out pumpkins with carved faces and lit candles burning inside-were originally made from turnips in Scotland, potatoes in Ireland, and “punkies” or large beets known as mangel-wurzels in England. When the Scottish and Irish immigrants who settled in the United States discovered pumpkins, they immediately recognized them as the ideal shape and size for Jack-O-Lanterns. Uncarved, they serve as a symbol of the harvest and are often displayed on front porches right up until THANKSGIVING. Carved and illuminated by a candle, they are symbolic of death and the spirit world.
Nuts or Apples
The nuts and apples traditionally used to predict the future on Halloween in the British Isles were once symbols of the harvest. Nuts, symbolic of life and fertility, were so much a part of Halloween that in some parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland the night of October 31 was called “Nutcrack Night.” Scottish young people put pairs of nuts named after certain couples into the fire. If the pair burned to ashes together, it meant that the couple could expect a happy life together. If they crackled or sprang apart, it meant that quarrels and separation were inevitable. In Wales, a brightly blazing nut meant prosperity, while one that smoldered or popped meant bad luck. Nuts may have taken the place of the live animal sacrifices performed during the ancient Celtic New Year celebration known as SAMHAIN .
Apples were also considered fertility symbols and were used to make predictions about love. At the first Halloween parties, people roasted apples and bobbed for them in tubs of water. If a boy came up with an apple in his teeth, it meant that the girl he loved wanted him as her boyfriend. In a traditional game known as Snap Apple, the boys took turns trying to bite an apple that was twirled on the end of a stick. The first to succeed would be the first to marry. For this reason, Halloween was sometimes referred to as Snap Apple Night.
Girls pared apples on Halloween, trying to keep the peel in a single unbroken strip. Then they would swing it three times around their head and throw it over their left shoulder. The fallen peel was supposed to form the initial of their future husband’s name. Apple seeds were also used to foretell the identity of a girl’s future mate. Seeds named for two different boys were stuck on the girl’s eyelids. The seed that stayed on the longest was her true sweetheart-although skillful winking or twitching often gave one seed the advantage.
The Halloween custom known as trick-or-treating-going from house to house begging for candy and threatening to cause mischief for those who don’t cooperate-seems to have originated in the British Isles. It was customary for the poor to go begging on ALL SOULS’ DAY in England, and children eventually took over the custom. In Ireland, legend has it that farmers used to go from house to house asking for food for their Halloween festivities in the name of the ancient god, Muck Olla. Good luck and wealth were promised to those who contributed; those who were stingy were threatened with bad luck.
Many believe that trick-or-treating is a relic of the Celtic New Year celebration known as SAMHAIN. Since this was the time of year that the spirits of the dead returned to visit the living, people would unbolt their doors, keep their hearth fires burning, and set out gifts of food to appease these troublesome spirits. Later, they dressed up as spirits themselves (see COSTUMES ) and demanded contributions from neighbors for communal feasts.
What “Trick or treat” really means is “Give me a treat or I’ll play a trick on you.” The phrase is American in origin, and it dates back to about the 1930s. It combines the food- and money-begging traditions of England and Ireland with the ancient belief in supernatural activity on this night. In fact, the “tricks” that are played on Halloween (or Mischief Night, October 30) often look as though supernatural forces were behind them. A favorite Halloween prank in rural areas, for example, involves disassembling a piece of farm equipment and reassembling it on a rooftop. Pranks characterized by a reversal of the usual order symbolize both the unpredictable weather at this time of year and the delicate balance between man and nature that can so easily be upset. In the nineteenth century, favorite Halloween pranks included “threshold tricks”-removing gates and fences, soaping or rattling windows, fixing bells so they rang constantly, and tying doors shut. The message behind these and other attacks on domestic security is the importance of exercising caution at a time of year when everyone is vulnerable to the forces of death and destruction. Just as SAMHAIN was the time for the pagans to secure their farms and animals against the winter weather, Halloween pranks serve as a reminder that nature will not be kind to those who fail to take the necessary precautions.
In the 1930s, people who offered candy to Halloween visitors were genuinely concerned with protecting their homes against pranksters. But the custom of playing tricks on Halloween declined in popularity over the years, and by the 1950s, most children had no idea what kind of “tricks” they were expected to perform; all they wanted was the candy. Trick-or-treating rituals underwent a major shift in the 1970s and 1980s, when stories of razor blades or pins concealed in candy and apples began to surface. Suddenly symbolic fears were transformed into real ones, and children’s freedom to roam the streets after dark was curtailed in many areas. Rather than being invited indoors for homemade treats, children now typically wait on the porch or doorstep while the host or hostess hands them their goodies. Young children are usually accompanied by their parents, who check the candy carefully for signs of tampering before allowing their children to eat it. In some areas, trick-or-treating is discouraged altogether. Instead, children attend organized Halloween parties.
The witch is probably the most recognizable symbol of Halloween. The name comes from the Saxon word wica, meaning “wise one.” Most witches were pagans, which explains why they fell out of favor as Christianity grew in popularity. Several times a year, witches from all over a certain region would gather in a sacred spot, such as the Hartz Mountains of Germany. Halloween was one of several dates on which these Witches’ Sabbaths took place. They would perform marriages, initiate new witches, and participate in fertility dances. Sometimes the witches would gallop about on branches or broomsticks.
The early Americans’ belief in witchcraft came from the European continent, particularly from Scottish and Irish immigrants. The GOBLINS and other evil spirits they feared at Halloween became identified with witches. Farmers in the Pennsylvania Dutch country painted hex signs on their barns to scare off witches. Iron and salt-two things that witches wouldn’t touch-were often placed by the beds of newborn babies.
By the nineteenth century, few educated people took witchcraft very seriously. But those who were less educated, particularly those living in rural areas, went right on believing. Today, witches are usually depicted as old women with matted hair, black robes, and bony fingers, with BLACK CATS as their only companions. They are symbols of the evil spirits traditionally believed to be roaming the earth at Halloween.
Barth, Edna. Witches, Pumpkins, and Grinning Ghosts: The Story of Halloween Symbols. New York: Seabury Press, 1972. Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian Books, 1994. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Santino, Jack. Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994. Thompson, Sue Ellen. Halloween Program Sourcebook. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2000. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.