Like any other holiday, a cluster of unique rituals has grown up around Halloween. They’re so common these days that we don’t even question them or how they came to be. We see a jack o’ lantern and it is instantly associated with Halloween. Same with wearing costumes, trick or treating, bobbing for apples, etc. But where did these rituals come from?
Halloween, depending on who you talk to, and sometimes their particular religious leanings, is either a harmless harvest festival filled with parties and candy or a dangerous, unholy pagan holiday for worshipping the dark arts. Holidays like Christmas and Easter have Christian roots yet have developed wide spread secular traditions and observances. Halloween, in my mind is the same, with roots that lay not only in the ancient pagan traditions but in Roman and Christian traditions, as well.
Halloween itself developed from the pagan end of season Samhain festival. As the Romans came into the picture, they integrated two of their holidays into the celebration; Feralia, a Roman day of observance for the dead, and Pomona, a day of worship for the goddess of fruit and trees.
Later, when Christianity began to take hold, November 1 became All Saints Day in remembrance of saints and martyrs, and November 2 was declared All Souls Day to honor the dead. Eventually, the period from October 31 to November 2 became known at Hollowmas, with the term hallow being Old English for holy, which has developed over time into today’s Halloween.
The jack o’ lantern seems to me like it would have come from some long-forgotten ancient rite, but in reality, it originated from an old Irish folk tale with strong Christian overtones. The story goes that a man named Stingy Jack tricked the devil on several occasions to assure that he would leave him be and not claim his soul when he died. When the day finally did come, and Jack passed on, Heaven wouldn’t take him, and the devil, after being tricked repeatedly, didn’t want him either, so Jack was left to wander the earth for eternity carrying only a carved out turnip with a candle in it to light the way.
People then started putting carved, candle-laden veggies in their Windows at night to keep Jack away. The tradition migrated to America, where pumpkins became the object of choice, apparently because they’re bigger, easier to carve and have more surface area for spooky faces to scare Jack away.
Bobbing for apples, on the other hand, has a decidedly more pagan foundation. When the Romans first came to Britain, they brought the apple with them. If you’ve ever sliced an apple in half, you’ll notice the seeds are reminiscent of a pentagram. To the Celts at that time, the pentagram was a symbol of fertility, so they took to bobbing for apples during the Samhain festival as a way to predict who were the next villagers to be married. Samhain was a time of year where the Celts believed it was possible to read the future and bobbing for apples was one way they tried. It’s sorta like tossing the bouquet at a wedding, only much less festive.
The origins for Halloween costumes were decidedly less festive, as well. Again, the Celts had a lot to do with it. November 1 marked the end of summer for them, and the observance of Samhain included an element of sacrifice. It was believed that this time of year, the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, and that the spirits of the dead would come back and wreak havoc on the people by destroying hard earned crops needed to survive the harsh winters.
The Druid priests at that time would hold great sacrifices on the night of October 31. During these rituals, the priests would wear elaborate costumes made from animal hides, and start bonfires, burning some of their crop yields and sacrificing some of their livestock in an attempt to appease the spirits of the dead. Over the centuries, the sacrifices faded away, but the ritual of dressing in costumes has remained and thrived.
Trick or treating, which has become synonymous with dressing in costumes, and going door to door asking for candy has its origins in a medieval Christian ritual called souling where the poor would visit the homes of their neighbors and receive soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the dead. Over the centuries, this practice changed, soon becoming just the children of the poor, then in costume, then adding on the slight threat of mischief if the home owner wasn’t forthcoming with food. The entire practice has culminated in what we know today, groups of kids dressed as vampires, witches or Star Wars characters combing the neighborhoods, and you’d better have some candy bars on hand or you’ll likely find your house egged or toilet paper draped in your trees the next morning.
So, while Halloween does certainly have its earliest origins in pagan ritual, the holiday we know and celebrate today is actually based on a combination of pagan, Roman and Christian practices, along with more than a few secular goodies thrown in. Candy corn, anyone?
Click below for more fright-filled stuff. And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…
The 13 Days of Halloween