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Boo! Scaring Up the Ancient Traditions of Halloween

October 25, 2013

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Ever wonder how Halloween came to be or why we celebrate it in the way that we do? Here’s a look back at some Halloween traditions from The 2006 Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Boo! Scaring Up the Ancient Traditions of Halloween

Why is it called “Halloween”?

The origin of Halloween and many of its customs can be traced to Samhain (pronounced sow-in, which rhymes with cow-in), an ancient pagan Celtic festival that was celebrated to mark the end of harvesttime and the beginning of the new year. The 2-day celebration began at sundown on October 31. The ancient Celts believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest during Samhain, thereby making it a good time to communicate with the deceased and to divine the future.

Eight hundred years after the triumph of the Holy Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, in honor of all Catholic saints. It was celebrated with a mass, bonfires, and people costumed as angels and saints parading through the villages.

November 1 was also known as All Hallows’ Day (“hallow” means to sanctify or make holy). October 31 was called All Hallows’ Eve. Over time, All Hallows’ Eve was shortened to Halloween.

Witches on Broomsticks


In the Middle Ages, women labeled as witches (from the Anglo-Saxon word wicce, or “wise one”) practiced divination. Such a woman would curl up near a fireplace and go into a trancelike state by chanting, meditating, or using hallucinogenic herbs. Superstitious people believed that these women flew out of their chimneys on broomsticks and terrorized the countryside with their magical deeds.

Bobbing for Apples


The Roman festival for Pomona, the goddess of fruit and orchards, was celebrated around November 1. Romans believed that the first person to catch a bobbing apple with his or her teeth would be the first to marry in the new year. They also believed that apple peels held the secret to true love. The lovelorn would peel an apple in one long, unbroken piece and throw it over his or her shoulder while being spun around. The shape of the peel on the ground represented the first initial of the peeler’s true love.

The Jack-o’-lantern

Turnip lanterns predate pumpkins as jack-o’-lanterns. In ancient Ireland, revelers would hollow out large turnips (or potatoes or beets), carve frightening designs into them, and light them from within with a candle or a piece of smoldering coal. They then placed the lanterns in the windows and doorways of their homes, in the belief that the carvings would scare off evil spirits and welcome deceased loved ones inside. Irish immigrants arriving in the New World during the early 1800s found the larger, easier-to-carve pumpkins ready substitutes for turnips.

Costumes

During Samhain, superstitious country folk would disguise themselves with animal skins and masks made from sailcloth or linen. In costume, they would go outdoors and make lots of noise, in an effort to fool troublesome spirits into thinking that they were one of them or to scare them away.

Tricks or Treats

An extra place was set at the table during Samhain as an offering to deceased loved ones. In addition, food was placed outside, near the doorway, to appease bothersome spirits who might otherwise play a trick on the inhabitants, such as tipping over containers of milk. Today’s trick-or-treating dates from the Middle Ages, when poor people collected baked goods called “soul cakes” from the wealthy. In exchange for cakes, the poor promised to pray for the giver’s deceased loved ones.
 

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