And now, read on to find out the meaning behind 13 spooky Halloween staples, including black cats, witches and trick-or-treating. In the meantime, what do you know about some of the Halloween traditions familiar to your area?
HT1 (Halloween Tradition #1) – What does the name 'Halloween' mean?
HT2 - Black Cats
Another medieval myth told that Satan turned himself into a cat when socializing with witches. But nowadays, black cats aren't synonymous with bad luck and mischief everywhere — in Ireland, Scotland and England, it's considered good luck for a black cat to cross your path!
HT2 – The Barnbrack Cake
The Celts celebrated Halloween as Samhain, 'All Hallowtide' - the 'Feast of the Dead', when the dead revisited the mortal world. The celebration marked the end of summer and the start of the winter months.
During the eighth century the Catholic Church designated the first day of November as 'All Saints Day ('All Hallows') - a day of commemoration for those Saints that did not have a specific day of remembrance. The night before was known as 'All Hallows Eve' which, over time, became known as Halloween.
The Barnbrack Cake is the traditional Halloween cake in Ireland. It’s a fruit bread and every member of the family gets a slice. Great interest is taken in the outcome as there is a piece of rag, a coin and a ring in each cake. If you get the rag then your financial future is doubtful. If you get the coin then you can look forward to a prosperous year. Getting the ring is a sure sign of impending romance or continued happiness.
HT3 - Jack-O'-Lanterns
My children and have always enjoyed carving pumpkins, so imagine my surprise when I learned that the tradition of lighting Jack-o'-lanterns actually has its roots in a sinister, tragic fable. According to Celtic folklore, it was a hard-drinking Irishman named Jack who gave his name to the Jack-o’-Lantern. One Halloween night, as Jack staggered home from a night of drinking, the devil appeared to claim his soul. But Jack tricked the devil into climbing a nearby tree to pick him a final apple. Quickly, Jack carved a cross on the tree trunk. The devil, who couldn’t cross such sacred symbols, was trapped. Jack let him go only when he promised never again to claim his soul. When Jack finally died, he was denied entry into heaven because of his drunken ways on earth. When he went to the gates of hell, the devil, remembering his promise, denied Jack entry, but threw him a glowing coal from the fires of hell to light his eternal wanderings. As the story goes, Jack placed the coal in a hollowed out turnip to form a make-shift lantern which he used to guide his lost soul. As such, the Celts believed that placing Jack-o'-lanterns outside would help guide lost spirits home when they wandered the streets on Halloween.
Jack-o'-lanterns' frightening carved faces also served to scare evil spirits away. When the Irish potato famine of 1846 forced Irish families to flee to North America, the tradition came with them. Since turnips were hard to come by in the states at the time, pumpkins were used as a substitute.
I talk more about the Irish Potato Famine in my book, NO SAFE HARBOR, which released from Bethany House Publishers on October 1, 2012.
HT4 - Bats
Medieval folklore also described bats as witches' familiars, and seeing a bat on Halloween was considered to be quite an ominous sign. One myth was that if a bat was spotted flying around one's house three times, it meant that someone in that house would soon die. Another myth was that if a bat flew into your house on Halloween, it was a sign that your house was haunted because ghosts had let the bat in.
Still, not all people see bats as ominous and spooky. My husband insists that bats are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Most bats eat huge amounts of insects, including farm pests and many of the nasty bugs that harass outdoor gatherings. Despite his urging, I’m not a fan of the bat house he installed in our back yard, and you can bet I’ll be watching for bats this Halloween!
HT5 - Witches
We’ve all seen the stereotypical image of the haggard witch with a pointy black hat and warty nose, but did you know that this idea actually stems from a pagan goddess known as "the crone?" The crone was honored during the Celtic celebration known as Samhain. She was also known as "the old one" and the "Earth mother," who symbolized wisdom, change, and the turning of the seasons. Today, the kind, all-knowing old crone has morphed into what we see as a menacing, cackling witch on television and movies.
HT6 - Cauldrons
Here’s some more on “the crone.” The pagan Celts believed that after death, all souls went into the crone’s cauldron, which symbolized the Earth mother’s womb. There, the souls awaited reincarnation, as the goddess’ stirring allowed for new souls to enter the cauldron and old souls to be reborn. That image of the cauldron of life has now been replaced by the steaming, bubbling, ominous brew.
HT7 - Witch’s Broomstick
Before we blame everything associated with Halloween on the Irish, you should know that the witch's broomstick is a superstition that has its roots in English folklore. The elderly, introverted women who were accused of witchcraft were often poor and could not afford horses, so they navigated through the woods on foot with the help of walking sticks, which were sometimes substituted by brooms.
As for flying? It was said that during night-time ceremonies, witches rubbed a "flying" potion on their bodies, closed their eyes and felt as though they were flying. The hallucinogenic ointment, which caused numbness, rapid heartbeat and confusion, gave them the illusion that they were soaring through the sky.
HT8 - Trick-Or-Treating in Costumes
Many years ago, it was believed that during Samhain, the veil between our world and the spirit world thinned, and ghosts of the deceased could return to mingle with the living. Visiting ghosts could disguise themselves in human form, such as a beggar, and knock on your door to ask for money or food. If you turned them away empty-handed, you risked being cursed or haunted.
Another Celtic myth taught that dressing up as a ghoul would fool the evil spirits into thinking that you were one of them so that they would not try to take your soul. In the United States, trick-or-treating became a customary Halloween tradition around the late 1950’s, after it was brought over by Irish immigrants in the early 1900’s. You can imagine how some people, wary of these foreign traditions, viewed immigrants during this time. Learn more about the prejudice associated with Irish immigrants in my latest release, NO SAFE HARBOR.
HT9 - Halloween Colors
The traditional Halloween colors of orange and black actually stem from the pagan celebration of autumn and the harvest, with orange symbolizing the colors of the crops and turning leaves, while black marks the "death" of summer and the changing season. Over time, green, purple and yellow have also been introduced into the color scheme of Halloween decorations.
Color plays a vital role in my e-book, THE TROUBLE WITH MARY. Or should I say, the absence of color...
That’s right. The absence of color is a clue to solving the mystery behind poor Cousin Mary’s untimely demise. Find out more by reading THE TROUBLE WITH MARY, available now for Kindle and other electronic reading devices!
HT10 - Candy Apples
The fusion of Celtic and Roman traditions is behind Halloween's candy-apple staple. The Romans held a festival honoring Pamona, the goddess of fruit trees. The goddess is often symbolized by an apple, so the fruit became synonymous with Samhain celebrations of the harvest.
Because apples are abundant in North America, candy apples quickly became popular Halloween treats, and were handed out liberally during the early days of trick-or-treating. Of course, nowadays, concerns over unwrapped candy have become an issue in most areas. Still, my children and I enjoy making the traditional, holiday treats. Our favorite candy apples are covered in caramel and nuts. My husband, however, prefers the classic, shiny red syrup. What’s your favorite?
HT11 - Bobbing for Apples
In ancient times, the apple was viewed as a sacred fruit that could be used to predict the future. Bobbing for apples is one of the traditional games used for fortune-telling on Halloween night. It was believed that the first person to pluck an apple from the water-filled bucket without using their hands would be the first to marry.
If the bobber lucked out and caught an apple on the first try, it meant that they would experience true love, while those who got an apple after many tries would be fickle in their romantic endeavors. Another myth was that if a girl put her bobbed apple under her pillow on Halloween night, she would dream about her future husband.
HT12 - Candy Corn
Can you guess when Candy Corn was invented? No, it wasn’t given to us by the Native American Indians. The candy most synonymous with Halloween, candy corn, was invented in the late 1880’s and began to be mass-produced in the early 1900’s. The original process for making candy corn was cumbersome and time-consuming, as each color of syrup had to be heated up in large vats and carefully poured by hand into specially shaped molds.
But the yellow, orange and white candy — meant to resemble a corn kernel — was a huge hit and remains a popular part of Halloween to this day. I even enjoy mixing in a few peanuts to give it a healthy crunch!
HT13 – Owls
The owl is a popular Halloween image. In Medieval Europe, owls were thought to be witches, and to hear an owl's call meant someone was about to die.
And that’s it! 13 things you may, or may not have known about the holiday known as Halloween.