In the “spirit” of the season, I thought we should talk a little bit about Halloween traditions and where they come from.
According to legends, books, and a few internet articles, Halloween dates back to the Celtic people. Many Spanish-speaking countries celebrate “Day of the Dead” on the first couple of days of November. Italy celebrates All Saints Day on November 1st. However, the Scottish and Irish peoples had Samhain. (Pronounced something like “Sow-ween,” but look it up to get a more accurate pronunciation. It definitely doesn’t sound the way it’s spelled!)
Samhain was a festival that signaled the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter–a time of cold darkness, or death, if you would. The Celtic people believed that the veil between our world and the spirit world was thinner and witches, warlocks, and the souls of the dead could roam freely on Samhain.
Samhain was eventually absorbed into Christian tradition. November 1st was declared All Saints Day. The night before was called the Eve of All Saints or the Eve of All Hallows. It’s easy to see how the two eventually became Halloween.
Samhain vs Halloween Traditions
During Samhain, it was tradition in many places to leave an empty chair and some food out for any unseen guests. (I find this fascinating, since people also “feed” the spirits during Día de los Muertos.) During Halloween, we greet people at the door with sweets and treats! Unless we’re hosting a party and then the food and drink flows freely in the house.
Apples were considered a part of fortune telling to the Celtic people. On Samhain Eve, women would peel apples and throw them over their shoulders. Whatever letter the peeling took the shape of was supposedly the first initial of the man they would marry. People just bob for apples on Halloween for fun now, but I think I’d prefer fortune telling to possibly drowning myself for a piece of fruit!
On Samhain, the hour before midnight was called the “witching hour.” It was believed that was when spirits returned from whence they came! Witches still play a huge role in Halloween. From decorations to costumes to scary stories, the witches are ever present.
As for the witching hour, it’s possible that is why trick-or-treating is generally done quickly! I don’t know how it is in all parts of the country, but where I grew up, we had to be back from trick-or-treating as early as possible. I know a lot of people go from neighborhood to neighborhood, but my husband and I are country people. We went to family and maybe a neighbor or two. We did the same with our children. Occasionally, we stayed longer than intended visiting someone, but that just meant we skipped other houses. When the porch lights went off, that meant time to go home. It’s still rare to find someone out trying to get candy after 9 or 10 o’clock here.
Black cats were also symbolic during Samhain. Black cats with a white patch on their chest were thought to be witches who could feed on souls. I guess that’s where the “black cats are bad luck” thing came from! Black cats on Halloween are either viewed as a witch’s familiar or just something spooky. And spooky is a big deal on Halloween.
Celtic people dressed as evil spirits to fool the real evil spirits. The scarier and uglier you looked, the better! In Scotland, this was called “guising.” People disguised themselves so that they could blend in with the spirits and wouldn’t get tricked or harmed in any way. Many people dressed in costumes that included something from nature. This was a way of giving thanks for the harvest.
Halloween costumes started out as scary and ugly, as well. However, it quickly became a game of dressing up as something you wanted to be or something totally opposite from your real self. I honestly didn’t like dressing up as a child, but I totally enjoy it now!
Check out Mommy’s Little Ghoul for an easy costume how-to!
The colors of orange and black are symbolic of Samhain. Orange represents the warmth of the harvest season and black represents the cold of winter when so much of nature died. Orange and black are still the two main colors of Halloween to this day! You can find them in decorations, costumes, and even the food!
Shout out to my daughter for capturing these gorgeous Fall/Harvest/Halloween colors from our front yard.
Celtic people built bonfires during Samhain to ward off the dead spirits. People still love fires around Halloween time, although we typically use them to warm our hands and roast our marshmallows!
There are several stories as to the origin of the jack-o-lantern, but I do know for sure that it wasn’t a pumpkin that started it all! During Samhain, a carved turnip was believed to ward off spirits. The tradition changed to pumpkins for Halloween because they are easier to carve. We’ve carved a variety of pumpkins through the years, but my daughter and her bestie have used turnips for the last couple of years. They are not easy to carve, but I think they are much creepier. They look like shrunken heads!! (Also, they will cook from the inside–and possibly catch on fire–if your candle gets too hot. Just thought you should know that.)
“The Jaw-Dropping History of the Jack-O’-Lantern: A Tale of Turnips, Samhain, and Severed Heads” is a really informative article if you’d like to know more about this tradition.
Do You Have Halloween Traditions?
In all honesty, it doesn’t seem like Halloween has strayed completely away from Samhain. A lot of the traditions are still deeply connected. As someone raised in the Appalachian mountains and whose ancestry includes a large amount of Scottish and Irish, this just seems like yet another thing that got handed down through the generations. Everyone celebrates a little differently though, so hopefully you have some fun Halloween traditions of your own!
Have a safe and happy Halloween!