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Double Double Toil and Trouble

Unmasking Halloween

When did Halloween begin?

Its origins are complex. Back around the first and second centuries A.D., when the ancient Celtic Druids were busy bonding with departed souls, communing with nature, and participating in some rather unsavory rituals, the seeds of Halloween were sown.

According to most historians, the origins of Halloween are closely linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain (sow-en), which marked the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter, the darker half of the year. The Celts believed this transition was a bridge to the world of the dead when their spirits emerged to mingle with the living more than any other time of year.

The Celtic calendar year began on what approximates our November 1. On October 31, the night before All Souls Day, they gathered to honor and appease the spirits with animal sacrifices, feasts and bonfires to light their way, into which they threw the bones of slaughtered animals (thus bone fires became “bonfires”). Everyone wore ritual costumes and masks to ward off stray demons.

With the advent of Christianity, Samhain was changed to All Hallows Eve and eventually Halloween. You can see where this is going.
Halloween arrived in North America with the great Irish migration following the Potato Famine of 1845-1849. Celebrations evolved over time to become the familyfriendly holiday it is. Here are some fun facts about its most historic iconic elements.

witches: Witch comes from Wicca, meaning Wise Person, usually a woman. Originally, they were herbalists and healers who were persecuted by early Christians as evil beings. In Medieval Europe, more than 100,000 were accused of witchcraft and executed. In America, this kind of persecution ended following the infamous Salem Witch Trials in Colonial Massachusetts in 1692-1693.

The fanciful Halloween hag with green skin, pointy hat and a broom, most probably became popular with the 1939 movie, Wizard of Oz (according to History.com).
pointy hats had different significance throughout history. But in the 15th century, women of higher classes wore pointed hats. As fashions changed, the lower classes, who were usually the ones accused of heresy and witchcraft, adopted the style that became associated with witches.

brooms: The witch’s broom has an unsavory history associated with fertility rites and drugs. However, the Wicked Witch of the West, synonymous with Halloween, was not part of these activities. She simply had the power to jump on her magic broomstick and fly.

black cats: Black cats are sweet and loving and bring joy to their owners. But in ancient cultures, they played a major role in mythology and folklore. In the Middle Ages, when not much good happened, black cats became affiliated with evil, and were believed to be witches in animal form. Silly superstitions still exist to the extent that black cats are only half as likely to be adopted as other cats.

jack o’lanterns: The original Jack O’Lantern wasn’t a pumpkin. Ancient Celtic cultures carved turnips on All Hallow’s Eve and lit them with embers to ward off evil spirits. Legend has it that a mean and miserly drunk named Stingy Jack was rejected by both heaven and hell, and condemned to wander the land with nothing but a glowing, hollowed-out turnip. So began the Irish tradition of carving turnips into the face of Jack-of-the-Lantern. When the Irish came to America, they discovered that pumpkins were much easier to carve than turnips.

Trick or treat has early ties to Samhain. Later in Medieval times, the poor would disguise themselves in costumes and masks to beg for food in exchange for offering prayers for the recently departed. The practice was called “souling.” The custom traveled to America with the Irish, and by the mid-1950s going door-to-door in search of treats, mostly without tricks, was firmly established as a Halloween tradition.

Candy corn is the quintessential Halloween confection created in the 1880s in Philadelphia. The National Confectioner’s Association reports that 35 million pounds of the little orange and yellow nibbles are sold annually. That’s 9 billion pieces, enough to circle the moon 21 times.

Time for some magyk.