Halloween: Symbolic Origins


When the Irish immigrants arrived in America, they brought with them the tradition of carving-out turnips (or, sometimes, a potato or rutabaga) and placing coals or a small candle inside the hollow. These were then displayed on doorsteps at Halloween to ward off evil spirits. However, the Irish quickly discovered that Jack O'Lanterns were much easier to carve out of the pumpkin which was a fruit native to their newly-adopted home...something of a blessing since turnips where nowhere near as plentiful or easy to find as they had been in Ireland. (The belief behind the Irish tradition of such carving is based upon the myth about a man called "Stingy Jack," whose story may be accessed via the link below.) This practice spread swiftly among the general population in America and was soon an integral tradition of the Halloween festivities. The Jack O'Lantern is quite possibly the most well-known symbol of modern day Halloween.

The pumpkin (which is a fruit) has been growing on the earth for several thousand years. A type of squash, it is a member of the gourd family which also includes cucumbers, gherkins and melons. The pumpkin is indigenous to the Western Hemisphere and originated in Central America. It was used in olden times (and is still used today) as a food crop. Over the course of centuries, pumpkins spread their vines across the entire North and South America. When European immigrants arrived in the New World, they found the pumpkin to be in plentiful supply and used by Native Americans for culinary purposes. The seeds were later transported back to Europe where the pumpkin quickly became popular as a food source.


The origin of the custom of "trick or treating" is a controversial one. Some believe that the practice originated with the Druids who threatened dire consequences to residents who failed to respond generously to the demand for free goods or money. Since a similar tale stems from various historical roots among the countries which comprise the British Isles, it is probably safe to assume that the practice is ancient, even if its precise origin cannot be ascertained with any certainty. Another theory is that the Irish began the tradition of "trick or treating." In preparation for All Hallow's Eve, Irish townsfolk would visit neighbors and ask for contributions of food for a feast to be held in the village. Yet another possible origin is that the custom dates back to the early All Souls' Day parades which were held in England. During such festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for the promise to pray for the wealthier family's departed relatives. Distribution of such "soul cakes" was encouraged by the Church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The custom was referred to as "going a-souling" and was eventually practiced only by the children who would visit the houses in their neighborhoods and be given gifts of ale, food and money.

Yet one more possible explanation for the present day custom of begging candy and other "treats" from neighbors on Halloween involves a Celtic figure by the name of Muck Olla. According to Irish custom, it is traditional to solicit contributions from others in the name of Muck Olla, who would be sure to punish those too greedy to disoblige.

No matter the exact origin of the custom, it is a commonly accepted concept that it was once believed the spirits of the departed returned to visit their old homes during Halloween and, in ancient times, people left food out for such spirits and arranged chairs so that they would be able to rest. For this reason, it has been suggested that it was this olden day custom which eventually evolved into the tradition of people masquerading as departed spirits and journeying from door-to-door in order to beg for treats.

The tradition of wearing costumes at Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. In ancient times, Winter was an uncertain and frightening season when food supplies often ran low. For many people who feared the dark, the short days of Winter were filled with constant worry. On Halloween, when it was believed that spirits returned to the earthly world, people would wear masks when they left their homes during the night hours. In this way, they would avoid being recognized by the ghosts and be mistaken merely for fellow spirits. During Samhain, Celtic villagers would don costumes to represent the souls of the dead and dance out of town, in the hope of leading the dead along with them. Similarly, in Christian religions, parishioners would dress as their favorite Saints and display relics of these departed souls.

The use of witches and cats (together with ghosts) in the celebration of Halloween originates with the Druids, who believed that ghosts, spirits, fairies, witches, elves and all manner of supernatural manifestation emerged on Halloween night to possibly harm the living. It was a common Celtic belief that cats (particularly black ones) had once been human beings who had been transformed into felines as punishment for their evil deeds or through coming in contact with bad magick. Black cats were often tied with silver ropes because it was thought such creatures possessed the ability to protect sacred treasures. Catholic traditions blended with the Celtic beliefs and eventually turned the cat into a witch's familiar, along with the theory that the witch herself had the mystical knowledge to transform herself into the form of a cat. The British once believed that elves rode upon the backs of villagers' cats and would lock up the animals in order that the elves might not catch them. At one time, the British believed that it was the white cat who brought bad luck and not a black once, which was considered to be lucky.

Christianity painted the image of a witch as an ugly old hag, often sporting a wart on her nose. Considered by the Church as cohorts of the devil, witches were said to employ spells and charms in order to bring harm to good men and women. Aside from the association with cats, they were said to be assisted by bats or spiders or other creepy-crawly creatures while carrying out their wicked deeds, possessed of the demonic ability to adopt the form of such animals. It was also implied that witches often had need of baby fat in order to attain full power. However, this evil witch character is pure fiction. Witches may be traced back to at least the Celts...and possibly even further. In ancient times, the men and women who were designated as "witches" were considered to be wise people initiated in the mysteries if the spiritual world. They were also healers and experts in the art of medicines. Modern day witches are revivers of these old Pagan religions and related rituals.

In ancient times, Celtic priestesses would roam the countryside, chanting in order to frighten away the evil spirits thought to be abroad on Halloween night. It is believed that this old custom may be the origin of the Halloween Parade.

Apples have long been associated with female deities and with immortality, resurrection and knowledge. One reason being that if an apple is cut through its equator, it reveals a five-pointed star outlined at the center of each hemisphere, also known as a pentagram. The pentagram was a Goddess symbol to many cultures, including the Roma (gypsies), the Celts and the Egyptians.

With the coming of the Roman invasion into Celtic lands, came the Roman festival which honored Pomona and which was merged with the Druid celebration of Samhain. Pomona was the Roman Goddess who presided over Fruits and Gardens. She was invariably portrayed as a beautiful maiden whose arms were filled with fruit and who wore a crown of apples upon her head. It is generally accepted that it is from Pomono that the association of apples became aligned with Halloween, along with the custom of "bobbing" for this particular fruit and its close link to the Autumn harvests.


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