Samhain: Modern Halloween is as mysterious and eerie as Samhain’s nature intended it to be. Halloween began more than 2,000 years ago in a Celtic New Year tradition. It was aligned with the Autumnal Equinox on Nov. 1 and called Samhain, referring to “Summers End.”
Superstition reigned as the dark winter days dawned. Harvest faded and only fear remained.
Pagan refers to any European religion other than mainstream Christianity, practiced originally by Celts, who believed there was a boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead and that it disappeared on Samhain.
Ghosts: Since Celts believed the veil between the worlds of heaven, hell and earth was thin on Samhain, Druid priests would try to contact spirits in an attempt to receive messages of hope and blessings for the village.
Villagers offered food and wine for their dead ancestors, and placed lit candles inside their windows to guide their loved ones home. They also set the table in their memory.
Similarly, Celts believed demons as well as irritable ancestors had access to the earthly realm and attempted to return home. Celtic villagers left treats on their doorsteps to bribe demons into feeling satisfied and leave.
Costumes and masks: Celts feared possession so strongly that they were afraid to leave their homes on All Hallows Eve. As a remedial measure, they created scary masks to confuse evil spirits. Children were believed to be more susceptible to possession and were dressed up for protection, which they later came to enjoy.
Trick or Treating: All Soul’s Day was added to All Saint’s Day and All Hallow’s Eve making it a three-day event in England in 998 in honor of the souls of loved ones, especially those believed to be in purgatory.
A ritual called Going-A-Souling was established where the poor would go door to door offering prayers for the family’s deceased relatives in exchange for pastries called soul cakes.
Soon after, children became involved in the tradition and exchanged prayer for money, delicious foods and even wine. They would then meet at the Church to donate their collected offerings to the poor.
Smashing pumpkins: Samhain was thought of as a time to deal with internal strife and conflict. The Celts would expel repressed emotions such as pain, anger or resentment believing that they were sending these evils back to the underworld.
To expel their negative thoughts and feelings, villagers committed various petty crimes including unhinging fences and letting farm animals run loose.
Great bonfires were lit and they burnt any item thought to possess negative energy, such as a toy children were fighting over. After the celebration law and order were usually restored.
This is contrary to the myths connecting sacrifice to modern Halloween celebrations and is also where pumpkin smashing, toilet papering or egging houses and other mischief originated.
Pumpkins and jack-o’-lanterns: Pumpkins were actually native to The New World but seeds were imported and grown in Europe. The origin of jack-o’-lantern stems from a ninth century European tale of Jack, a stingy drunk who tricks Lucifer into climbing a tree. As Lucifer gathered fruit, Jack carved a cross in the bark, trapping Lucifer from climbing down.
Jack eventually died and was refused entry into heaven by God. Jack returned as a soul and made a deal with Lucifer wherein he would be allowed down the tree with under the condition that Jack be allowed to join him in the underworld.
After initially agreeing, Lucifer went back on the deal and transformed Jack’s head into a carved turnip lit with a flaming coal. Since then, Jack has been cursed to wander the Earth.
Witches and bats: Bats were widely thought to be strange, blood sucking freaks of nature, symbolizing demons, death and hell.
Celtic druids and pagans practiced alchemy and attempted to treat the plague with medicine containing bat wings, giving birth to the association of paganism and black magic.
Brooms were added to witch imagery because Pagans would sweep negative energy out of their homes with them.
Myths on black cats explain them as the source of powerful transformative magic, used by witches to shape-shift and access information between worlds.
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