The roots of Halloween stretch back over the centuries. Today we will examine the origins of the holiday and a few of its most cherished traditions. Do you have any cherished Halloween traditions? Share them in the comments section for others to read and enjoy. Also, visit the library and see some of the Halloween books in our collection the librarians have set out.
The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween) fell around the time corresponding to November 1st on our modern calendars. This festival marked both the beginning of the Celtic New Year and the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that during this festival, which lasted approximately three days, the line dividing the spirits of the dead from the living was thinner and more permeable. At this time ghosts, fairies, and demons walked and mingled with humanity for a short period.
The Celts divided their year into two halves. A light half (summer) when the earth produced fruits and vegetables and was green, and a dark half (winter), a time when the earth went dormant and lost its greenery. As with other festivals, Samhain provided a time for feasting, dancing, and other merrymaking. It was a way to enjoy the waning days of warmth and to prepare for the cold dark days that lay ahead.
As barbarian Europe converted to Christianity, pagan holidays were incorporated into the Christian liturgical calendars and given new Christian meanings. In the Christian calendar, November 2nd is All Souls’ Day, when the dead are traditionally prayed for. November 1st was All Saints’ Day or All Hallows Day. This was the day of the year when all the Saints of the Church were remembered. October 31st became known as All Hallows Eve, or with the English propensity to shorten and contract everything: Halloween.
Jack O’ Lantern
The history of Jack O’ Lanterns originates with the story of Stingy Jack. According to legendStingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. Jack, unwilling to pay for the drink, convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drink. Instead of paying for the drink, Jack stuck the coin into his pocket next to a silver cross which prevented the Devil from regaining his original shape. After forcing the Devil to agree not to harm him for a year or to take his soul after he died Jack left the devil go.
The next year Jack tricked the Devil into climbing the tree to pick a piece of fruit. While the Devil was in the tree Jack carved a cross into the bark of the tree, preventing the Devil from climbing back down. Once again Jack was able to extract a promise from the Devil. This time the Devil agreed not to bother Jack for ten years.
Shortly after the second agreement with the Devil, Jack died. Jack appeared at the Pearly Gates and God, wary of having such a duplicitous character in heaven, refused him admittance. The Devil, still upset at being tricked so easily and yet true to his word, would not take Jack into hell. Instead, the Devil gave Jack a burning coal to help him find his way. Jack put the coal into a carved turnip and has been roaming the earth since.
In Ireland and Scotland people made their own Jack O’ Lanterns by carving scary faces into potatoes and turnips and displaying them on their windowsills. This was to frighten Stingy Jack and other malevolent spirits away. In England, large beets were carved. Immigrants from the British Isles brought these traditions to America, where it was soon discovered that pumpkins, a gourd native to North America, made the perfect Jack O’ Lantern.
Why do we go trick-or-treating and wear costumes?
As mentioned above the ancient Celtic peoples believed that during the festival of Samhain the line between the living and the dead was thinner. The Celts would take precautions so as not to draw any unwanted attention from wandering ghosts and spirits. Adults would dress themselves in costumes made of animal skins to frighten away spirits. Others would fill tables full of goodies in order to satisfy wandering spirits and make them leave the local villagers alone.
By the year 1000 CE poorer members of the local community would visit the homes of the better off during this particular season. In exchange for pastries, called soul cakes, they promised to pray for the souls of that family’s departed members. This custom was known as souling, and was later taken up by children demanding food, treats, and ale. This is reminiscent of the Christmas tradition of “wassailing” where the poor would converge upon the homes of their betters and demand food and drink – think “O give us some figgy pudding,” and “we won’t go until we get some.”
In Scotland and Ireland the young would visit other homes while dressed in different types of costumes. In exchange for performing a little song or dance or reciting a poem or some other “trick” they would be given a “treat” of fruit, nuts, or some coins.
Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their traditions with them when they arrived in the United States. This helped to cement the various celebrations associated with Halloween firmly in the states. In the early 20th century many American youth seemed to take the idea of a “trick” literally and began engaging in vandalism, assaults, and occasionally violence. In an effort to curb more destructive behaviors, local authorities organized community trick-or-treat programs in the 1930s. After a hiatus during World War II due to sugar rationing the traditions picked back up and now the newly emerging baby boomers gave a boost to this tradition.
Bobbing for Apples
Although associated with Halloween parties and fall festivals now this game was originally associated with finding love and divination. Like some of our other Halloween traditions this one originated in the British Isles and made its way to the New World with Scottish and British immigrants. There are several variations of this game with different rules and superstitions attached to the outcome of the game.
In the first version of the game apples are assigned the name of a potential mate. Young ladies would then take turns bobbing for apples. In this game the girl would try to bite the apple. If it took only one turn to bite the apple they would marry. A second attempt meant the man would court the girl, but the love would fail. If it took three tries the relationship was doomed. Another variation of the game consisted of a race and the first to bite an apple would be the first to marry. Another related superstition held that if the girl placed the apple she bit under her pillow she would see her future mate in her dreams.
These games are pretty tame compared to another apple-themed game popular in the 1800s. The game of Snap Apple consisted of an apple stuck to the end of a stick. A lit candle was affixed to the other end. The goal of this game was to take a bite of the apple while it was spun around and trying to avoid a face full of candle wax. Definitely not the type of game one would consider playing at Halloween parties today.
The library has many books and CDs available to help you get into the Halloween spirit. Here are a few examples of the items we offer:
"It Came From Ohio..." by James Renner
"Haunted Ohio" by Chris Woodyard, we also have volumes II, III, IV, and V
"Ghosthunting Ohio" by John B. Kachuba
"A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness
"Dark Witch" by Nora Roberts
"Hocus Pocus! Halloween Crafts for a Spooktacular Holiday"
"The Pumpkin Carving Book" by Deborah Schneebeli-Morrell
We also have CDs full of spooky sounds and noises!
"Halloween: Monster Mix" by Mannheim Steamroller
Martha Stewart Living "Spooky Scary Sounds for Halloween"
If you need help finding something you don't see here or need a spooky recommendation find one of our librarians and they will be glad to help you.
Have a safe and happy Halloween!