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Why Ghosts and Witches - History of Halloween

Updated on September 15, 2011

Traditions are the reason why most festivals are celebrated the way they are. We dress up in costumes and play trick or treat on Halloween mostly because that's the way our parent's celebrated the day/night.

How many of us ever wonder why we dress up as ghosts and witches? Fancy dress can be anything less spooky, so why is Halloween traditionally the day when we dress up in gory costumes? The answer lies in the history of the festival.

The word Halloween comes from the Irish Hallow E'en, which means All Hallows Eve. So what is so special about the night before All Hallows? On All Hallows Day it was customary to pay respect to All Souls or All Saints. In fact All Hallows Day was also called All Saints Day by the Catholics.

The night before or All Hallow's EVE was more Pagan in nature. It was related to the Druidic fire festival called "Samhain". This was celebrated by Celts in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Scottish called it Hallowe'en, and the Irish called it Samhein, or La Samon, which means the Feast of the Sun. The Welsh called it Nos Galen-gaeof meaning the Night of the Winter Calends.

Essentially all three names were symbolic of the end of the harvest season and the onset of the winter months. It was a celebratory feast in Gaelic culture where thanks were offered for the bountiful harvest which would see them through the difficult winter months when Feile Moingfinne, the Snow Godess ruled.

The feast would often continue in to the night with bonfires being fairly prevalent. The bonfires would in turn attract a number of insects due to the warmth and the light. The regions would see bats attracted to the bonfires due to this and these came to be symbolized with Halloween.

There was also the belief that the dead would come to earth in preparation for the celebration of All Souls Day. To protect themselves from these souls the people would dress in masks and costumes that imitated the supernatural and scary beings like Ghosts and Witches. many superstitions and beliefs are associated with the night due to the magical presence of many dead souls.

The most popular symbol of Halloween, the carved pumpkin called the Jack O'Lantern is a result of a popular Irish folk tale. As per the tale Jack a farmer trapped the Devil and only released him when he promised never to take his soul. When he died heaven could not take him and the Devil was not allowed to take his soul. So Jack was stuck in limbo. He told the Devil he had no light to see and so the Devil gave him an ember from the flames of hell that would never go out. Jack put this ember in a pumpkin and carried it as his lantern.

Today the festival has evolved to a different level. It is more of a cultural and social even than a religious one. The dress up is more for fun than for protection from evil spirits. It has become a good time to play games and party. The festival of Halloween is now celebrated on October 31.

Here are some scary and apt quotes for Halloween in case you need some dialogue to go with your costume.

Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
-William Shakespeare (a quote from "Macbeth")

Bring forth the raisins and the nuts- Tonight All-Hallows' Specter struts Along the moonlit way.
-John Kendrick Bangs

From ghoulish and ghosties and long leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!
- Scottish saying

At first cock-crow the ghosts must go
Back to their quiet graves below.
-Theodosia Garrison

Men say that in this midnight hour,
The disembodi├Ęd have power
To wander as it liketh them,
By wizard oak and fairy stream.
- William Motherwell

Hark! Hark to the wind! 'Tis the night, they say, When all souls come back from the far away- The dead, forgotten this many a day!
- Virna Sheard

Shadows of a thousand years rise again unseen,
Voices whisper in the trees, "Tonight is Halloween!"
- Dexter Kozen

'Tis the night - the night
Of the grave's delight,
And the warlocks are at their play;
Ye think that without
The wild winds shout,
But no, it is they - it is they.
- Arthur Cleveland Coxe

On Hallowe'en the thing
you must do
Is pretend that nothing
can frighten you
An' if somethin' scares you
and you want to run
Jus' let on like
it's Hallowe'en fun.
- from an Early Nineteenth Century Halloween Postcard


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    • cashmere profile image

      cashmere 4 years ago from India

      Thank you Au fait and Happy Halloween to you!

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 4 years ago from North Texas

      A very interesting history of Halloween. I knew the pagan influence and the Catholic influence, but never learned much about these other things. Halloween isn't one of the holidays that I give much attention to, but I enjoyed reading your article and getting informed.

      Going to share this article because I think my followers will enjoy.

    • rwelton profile image

      rwelton 6 years ago from Sacramento CA

      I liked the history of Jack...may have to give that a re-tell late next month.


    • cashmere profile image

      cashmere 6 years ago from India

      Flora Breen Robinson, there are many variations to the legend of Jack O'Lantern, but I liked this one the best. It was the most logical one :)

      Thanks Simone and yes Alex it was a pagan festival celebrated by many people all over Europe

    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      The tradition of Halloween seems to have been widespread in Europe. Thanks for this hub, which may inspire me to do some research myself.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Aha! I had forgotten about Samhain. This was a fun read! I'm more excited about Halloween now than ever! >_

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      I hadn't heard of the legend of the Jack o Lantern before. I dressed up as a witch growing up, but never a ghost.