For my final post on Halloween I am going to lighten up a bit. As noted in the previous blog posts, Halloween origins are a jumbled collage, so in most cases pinning a particular ritual to where it came from is a shot in the dark. Holidays don’t show up fully formed, but are created slowly over time. The following are the most common traces to the past, but take each with a big grain of salt!
Bobbing for Apples – When the Celts were absorbed by the Roman Empire, many rituals of Roman origin overlapped. Among them was the worship of Pomona, goddess of the harvest, often portrayed sitting on a basket of fruits and flowers. The idea behind bobbing for apples seems to have been that snatching a bite from the apple enabled the person to grasp good fortune. Unmarried people would attempt to take a bite out of an apple bobbing in a pail of water, or suspended on a string. The first person to do so was believed to be the next to marry.
Black Cats – Cats in general have long been associated with divinity and magic, many cultures considering them sacred. Black cats were thought to be reincarnated beings with the ability to divine the future. During the Middle Ages it was believed that witches could turn themselves into black cats. Thus when such a cat was seen, it was considered to be a witch in disguise.
Witches – In Pre-Christian Europe, wise women (or men for that matter) who practiced herbal medicine and revered nature were seen as magical. Later this was misinterpreted, leading to the famous witch-hunts of the past. Originally witches were merely one of the various supernatural beings thought to walk or fly about the earth on Halloween. How or when witches became the symbol of Halloween over other “monsters” and nocturnal creatures is unknown, but probably a marketing ploy!
Dressing Up in Costumes – This one has several origins, all real, and some (not all) are tied to “Trick or Treating” in a round about way.
1) In Medieval times and places, costumed holiday parading, singing and dancing at May Day, Halloween, and Yule (with different themes, of course, though sometimes with similar characters) became popular in Ireland and the British Isles. Originally these costumed celebrants were adults who would go from house to house receiving drink and food in exchange for their performances.
2) In 1605 Guy Fawkes’ abortive effort to blow up the British Parliament on November 5th led to the creation of “Guy Fawkes Day” celebrated by the burning of Fawkes effigies in bonfires and children dressing in rags to beg for money for the fireworks.
3) Masks had long been a part of the “masquerade” tradition stretching back centuries. People wore masks at Christmas parties and cross-dressed for Twelfth Night.
4) And of course there is the reference to Celts wearing disguises to confuse the evil spirits roaming on Samhain, although this has no documented evidence.
FUN FACT: In the USA, up until the late 1920s dressing up in costume and asking for treats at local businesses was a New York City Thanksgiving tradition. It only stopped when the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade became too much to compete with, and sometime afterward dressing in costumes fell back a month to become a Halloween custom.
Trick or Treat – It is unknown precisely where and when the phrase “trick or treat” was coined. Old World traditions of souling, mumming, and guising became popular in the USA, as they were in Europe. By the 1920s, however, pranks had become the Halloween activity of choice for rowdy young people, for reasons unclear, and this mischief hit a high point during the desperation of the Great Depression. In some parts of the country schools and civic groups sponsored “give aways” of candy and treats to keep young people off the streets. Organized Halloween candy-gifting activities began after WWII, and the custom was firmly established in American popular culture by 1951 when trick-or-treating was depicted in a Peanuts comic strip. (see images above)
Then, in 1952, Disney produced a cartoon called “Trick or Treat” featuring Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie. Thereafter the phrase was set!
Jack O’Lantern – Carving out gourds, potatoes, turnips, and other hard-shell vegetables to place a candle or burning coal within as a light on dark nights is an ancient practice. Where and when the idea of carving faces or pictures onto the shell began is unknown for certain, but usually attributed to the Celts and Irish. Whether this was only done as part of a Halloween ritual to scare away evil spirits, or guide the souls to the meal left out for them, is also unclear. Pumpkins, indigenous to North America, eventually became the fruit of choice due to how plentiful they were, how easy to carve, and how lasting compared to other vegetables.
The “Jack” has different legends as well. One is that “Jack” was a name for a night watchman carrying a light. Another possible origin is “Jack” as a spirit who floated through the dark as a mysterious ball of light or ghostly glowing face trying to trick travelers into following to their doom.
Bonfires – As much as Halloween haters want to tie bonfires to sacrifices or some other pagan rites, the truth is quite uninteresting. Fire was simply the best way to keep warm on a cold night, essential for cooking, and a great way to cast light. At gatherings in ancient times, or even today if hanging out on the beach with friends or at a campground, a big fire served as the focal point for the festivities. That is pretty much it!
As for the rest — bats, ghosts, spiders, zombies, cemeteries, and so on — the inclusions are fairly obvious: They are scary and/or freaky. Add it all up and you have a modern Halloween! Personally, I will never embrace the dark aspects of the holiday so even if not as bad as I once believed, I’ll stick with keeping it cute.