It’s that time of year again! Yes, that jolly ole time of zombies and witches is back again. Don’t worry, that’s not all! There’s jack-o’-lanterns, costumes, and more!
But where did all these traditions come from? Dressing up as a dead body and ringing doorbells for candy doesn’t sound like a hearty family tradition, unless you grew up during ancient Celtic times. The history of Halloween can be traced back to an old Celtic festival held around Oct. 31 of every year. This was a time of celebration for the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture. This was also a time when the dead could come back and haunt the living. In order to ward off evil, believers would adorn themselves with costumes and masks, parading around a bonfire.
The Western world embraced the costumes from the Celts and the jack-o’-lanterns from the Irish.
Apparently a stingy man, aptly named Stingy Jack, liked to play tricks on everyone, even the Devil. After pulling a stunt, Stingy Jack made the Devil promise not to take his soul to Hell when he died. But when his death came, Stingy Jack was not allowed into heaven. He went back to the Devil asking what to do. The Devil tossed Stingy Jack an ember to light his wandering ways, and Irishmen began carving out turnips, potatoes, and rutabagas to ward off old Stingy Jack during All Hallows Eve.
The tradition of carving out pumpkins became popular when the Irish arrived in America and realized pumpkins were much larger and easier to carve into lanterns.
So what’s the deal with the witches? The Old Testament of the Bible actually makes several references to witches in Exodus, Leviticus, and Hebrews.
A central icon of Halloween, the name comes from the Saxon wica, which means “wise one.” It is said that as these witches traveled they would ride horseback; poorer witches traveled by foot and carried a pole or broomstick to help them jump over streams. The early American settlers had their own superstitions about witches from Europe, but the stories got combined with beliefs from the Native Americans, and then the voodoo magic of the African slaves.
Many different legends circulate, especially in the Western Hemisphere, although witches are believed to exist on every continent. On Halloween, witches supposedly fly on their broomsticks to celebrate while they gather to worship the Devil. On a lighter note, as witches lurk the streets during Halloween, fairies and angels are also aflight.
As little girls dress up in these angelic or not-so-angelic costumes, they compete with the boys who are disguised as zombies and vampires for candy as they go trick-or-treat.
The story of the zombie originates from Haitian folklore, unlike mummies which are of European descent.
As the slave trade brought millions over from the West African coast, the legends of voodoo magic spread word of dead bodies coming back to life. The more rational explanation is that a rampant disease probably induced cases of catatonic schizophrenia, whose symptoms could have been interpreted as zombie-like.
The vampiric inspiration actually originated with women vampires sucking the blood of their victims. Coming from Gothic, Arabian, Greek, Chinese, and even Indian legends, creatures were described who drank the blood of humans.
However, the candy aspect of the holiday probably came from the Irish. The tradition of going door-to-door to collect little food items was popular among the peasants. Another legend suggested receiving soulcakes, which were little muffins, in exchange for good luck and prosperity. Anyone who came up short would suffer from practical jokes being played on their homes, hence the term “trick-or-treat.”
In America the holiday is the second most celebrated, behind Christmas. Many speculate that the idea of Halloween has been commercialized by candy and costume companies, who make fortunes during the season, but that doesn’t stop adults and children alike from enjoying the decorations and streets filled with costumes and spectacle.