Creepy Old Halloween Traditions
The Truly Terrifying Origins of Halloween
Halloween is an annual grand celebration throughout various countries overflowing with costumes, candy, parties, games, and sheer fun. The date of Halloween is always October 31st. Many Americans celebrate Halloween with their children by throwing a Halloween party or by going trick-or-treating. Halloween has to be the scariest day of the year...but why? Where did Halloween originate and why do we celebrate the dark side? Why do people dress in costumes and tell scary stories? Why do children go from door to door asking for candy? These new-found Halloween traditions have origins that might surprise you...because although they seem innocent now, a hundred years ago and even further back in time, we see that Halloween was even more terrifying than ever.
Halloween has undergone a few name changes throughout the centuries. Before it was known as Halloween, it was called All Hallows Eve or Hallow E'en (evening). It was also called All Saints Eve. But before the Church had tried to reclaim the holiday for themselves (to no avail), Halloween was known as Samhain. Samhain is the Irish/Gaelic name for the holiday meaning Summer's End. Not so creepy, right? Well, I haven't told you what Samhain entailed. Being that it was the end of the Summer, harvesting was the main event. But the people also believed that it was the beginning of the dark half of the year...which meant that the veil between our world and the world of the spirits was at its thinnest...and these people upheld certain traditions in order to appease the spirits. And let's just say it wasn't merely feeding candy to the neighborhood kids.
The Tradition of The "Harvest" and Sacrifices
Samhain (modernly called Halloween or All Hallows Eve) marked the end of the Summer, and so the farmers and people of Ireland would reap their last harvest. To many this was known as the Great Harvest. It was considered very bad luck to try to harvest anything after All Hallows Eve, this may be due to the idea that whatever was left belonged to the "good folk" or the fairies. In harvesting the crops and slaughtering the livestock, the people believed that offerings of these things had to be left for the gods, for the good folk, and for the dead. If offerings were not left, the spirits might be angered and wreak their vengeance on the people during the Winter. This might mean someone would grow ill and/or die, or their livestock might die out. It could also mean their crops might go bad during the Winter and leave the family to starve.
So in order to appease the spirits, offerings were made...some believe it was just a share of the crops and meat...while others believed that human beings were sometimes used as offerings to the spirits. One concept that is a debated one is the idea that a Wicker Man was built and burnt as an offering to the spirits during pagan times (before the rise of Christianity). The Romans said that the Celts would burn people alive within the Wicker Man as an offering to their gods on Samhain, although there is no substantial proof of this claim. Let's just be glad our harvesting of crops and livestock doesn't involve sacrificial slayings, hmm?
"Souling" and Soul Cakes
Historians and folklorists claim that the tradition of "souling" is the original trick-or-treating; however, there are some definite differences between the two. Souling was a tradition of going door-to-door singing songs for the souls in purgatory and also asking for soul-cakes. This tradition was mostly upheld in Wales, Scotland and Ireland and was usually carried out by the local children and peasants. (This tradition of singing door-to-door is quite similar to the tradition of caroling and Christmas.)
Soul-cakes were passed out and are said to have represented the souls of those who had died in the previous year who might be stuck in purgatory. So if these soul-cakes were eaten, does that mean the person was consuming someone's soul? A terrifying thought. Why were cakes made to honor the dead...why not a candle lit or coins given to the poor instead?
A penny for your thoughts...a cake for your...soul?
The Tradition of Trick-or-Treating and Guising
Today's version of All Hallows Eve wouldn't be complete without a little trick-or-treating for the kids. But where did this tradition originate? Is it as innocent and cute as it seems to be today? Trick-or-treating is a tradition that is linked to two older traditions on Samhain - souling (previously mentioned) and guising. Guising was the activity of dressing in costume and going from door-to-door to perform and acquire sweets or money. This sounds the closest to trick-or-treating as it comes. However, back in the day when children showed up at your door guising (or disguising themselves to put it simply), you would never see a cute princess, a fluffy bunny, or a muscular superman...you would see faces of pure horror! The reason for this is because costumes were all homemade before the turn of the twentieth century. You can imagine the items used for these costumes - burlap sacks, paper machie, wax masks, old fabric, cardboard, etc. These items make for bonechilling results! Check out buzzfeed's video below...it is a collage of frightening vintage Halloween costumes.
Not only were the guisers' costumes frightening, even their treat containers were hair-raising. But this was all for a good reason. The idea of dressing in disguise originated in ancient times when the people believed Samhain was the night when the spirits of the dead could return to Earth and wreak havoc. In order for the children to protect themselves, they had to disguise themselves to "fit in" with the spirits...or perhaps even to scare the spirits off completely! Keep that in mind this Halloween when picking out your costume!
The Veil Between the Worlds
As discussed throughout this article, Samhain (All Hallows Eve/Halloween) marked the first day of the dark half of the year and thereby marked the time when the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest. This meant that anything from the "other side" could cross over into our world. A whole assortment of spirits were thought to traipse around the land and visit door-to-door. The spirits of the deceased were often welcomed into homes. In fact, many families held a tradition of leaving a setting at their table with food and drink for the spirit to partake in. If the spirits were not welcomed into the homes, it was thought that they would cause some sort of trouble and so it was best to keep them happy.
In addition to the spirits of the dead returning to walk the Earth, other spirits were thought to come out on Samhain - goblins, fairies, demons, and old gods. Some of these spirits were nice, while others were mischievous. People came up with various ways of either deterring the spirits or appeasing them. One way to scare the spirits away from one's home was to carve a face out of a turnip and place a candle inside. This was thought to have frightened away the evil spirits but could have also lit the path for the family's recently departed loved ones. Basically, either scare the spirits away or give them food and bid them adieu!
So when you are carving your jack-o-lanterns, dressing in "disguise", and eating dinner this All Hallows Eve, think back to what your ancestors might have been doing centuries ago to the day.
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© 2014 Nicole Canfield