By Ray Meloy
There’s a chill in the air, and the dark shadows of nightfall descend earlier every day. It’s a time when we notice the passing of the last warmth of Autumn and realize that Winter is just around the corner. This transition period falls right around that spooky period of Halloween when the trees lose their leaves, and the landscape appears to die. Death and uncertainty have always ushered in the Halloween season.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Celts celebrated Samhain. This festival marked the end of the harvest season, and the people prepared for the long dark Winter. In those days, the extent of Winter’s brutality determined if you survived till Spring. To help ensure good luck, they celebrated Samhain. Huge bonfires to ward off evil spirits attracted people from far and wide, providing one last banquet of food and drink before the stark rations of Winter. Druid priests sacrificed animals to appease their gods, hoping for a quick and mild Winter.
Superstition played a large part in the celebration. It’s believed that on this night of the year, the barrier separating the living and the dead falls, and spirits roam the earth seeking to exact revenge on those who wronged them in life. To help combat this, many people dressed in costumes or wore masks so the spirits would not recognize them. Not all spirits had evil intent, as candles illuminated the window or doorway to guide benevolent souls to stop in. A family would place food and drink outside the front door so departed loved ones could partake of a meal.
When the Roman Empire conquered the land, they integrated the Roman festivals of Feralia and Pomona with Samhain. Fittingly, Feralia honored the dead, while Pomona, Goddess of fruit, celebrated the harvest.
Through the centuries, various harvest celebrations and spooky entertainments created the Halloween experience we know today. When Christianity came to the Celtic nations, the church would take over pagan holy days and supplement them with their own. The first day of November became All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day. So naturally, the day before became All Hallows’ Eve, now shortened to Halloween.
When the potato famine hit Ireland, the immigrants to America brought their traditions and superstitions with them. The best known is the legend of Stingy Jack. As with all legends, there are many variations to this story, but they all end the same. In a nutshell, a dishonest man named Jack tricked the devil into not taking his soul to hell when he died. Because of his immoral ways, God would not let Jack into Heaven. As a consolation, the Devil gave Jack a glowing ember to light his way, forever roaming the world between the living and the dead. To hold the ember, Jack placed it in a hollowed-out turnip. When arriving in America, the Irish discovered that pumpkins worked better for making lanterns, and that’s how we get Jack-O-Lanters because of Stingy Jack.
Natural and supernatural entertainments abound during the Halloween season. Due to the uncertainty of surviving the Winter, many games involved telling the future, especially marriage. Because of Pomona, the goddess of fruit, apples play a large part in Halloween activities. Bobbing for apples was a contest to see who could retrieve an apple, thus finding marriage the following year. Trying to eat an apple hanging from a string was another diversion. If a woman peeled an apple and threw the peel over her shoulder, it would land in the initial of the man she would marry. If a girl gazes into a mirror in a darkened room, she will see the reflection of the one she is to wed. If no reflection appears, then she would not marry for a year.
Receiving treats makes Halloween an exciting time for children. In Britain, the practice of Souling led to the modern practice of giving out treats. Since All Souls Day followed a couple of days after Halloween, children would go around begging for pastries called soul cakes. In return for a soul cake, the children would say a prayer for the departed so they could leave purgatory and get into heaven. This practice became known as “Going a-Souling,” a precursor to today's Trick-or-Treat. Guising, which originated in Scotland, is when children dressed in disguise and sang or performed any variety of entertainment for treats, also led to costumed Trick-or-Treating. On a more nefarious note, children would roam the towns and countryside demanding treats or a trick would be played. Most of the tricks would be harmless, but sometimes, they went too far when adults got involved. Livestock let out into the countryside would roam free, and a favorite of tipping over outhouses, sometimes occupied, abounded. Things got so out of hand that civic leaders had to devise a way to reign in some of this energy without ruining the celebration. That’s when Halloween Parades and organized gatherings came into vogue.
Humanity’s fascination with death and the quest for wanting to know the future brought Halloween into existence. It is celebrated worldwide and has evolved over the centuries as multiple cultures embraced it. Who knows what form it may take a hundred years from now? Maybe a fortune teller on All Hallows’ Eve can tell us.