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Origins of the Symbols of Halloween: What Began as Samhain is Now a Children’s Holiday

Published by Jackson Majercin

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Halloween began in ancient times as a Gaelic festival called, “Samhain” (the literal translation of which is “End of Summer”). The festival took place on the eve of All Saints. On that day, it was believed that the barrier between humans and the spirits of the dead was weakest, and so spirits could cross over.

That meant good spirits, of dearly departed who were welcome; but also not-so-good spirits that provoked fear and spawned traditions. Traditions that are enjoyed today, but that have morphed into something a bit more playful than in the superstitious past.

Jack-o’-Lanterns

It is pretty obvious that Americans accept the pumpkin as the fruit of choice for carving jack-o’-lanterns, but the pumpkin replaced the original fruit, the gourd, only in the mid 1800s when the tradition of Halloween first hit North America. There are differences of opinion as to whether it was a gourd or a turnip that was first used, but the point is that either of them would have been much smaller than the pumpkin. There are a couple of different legends that apply to jack-o-lanterns.

The first is the story of an Irish farmer who tricked the devil and ended up with a promise that the devil would never take Jack’s soul. Jack, who wasn’t nice enough to make it into Heaven, went to visit the devil, after he was refused at the pearly gates. The devil, keeping his earlier promise, also turned him away. Jack is said to still wander the countryside with his carved turnip lamp, and will do so for eternity.

Other legends provide that the scary countenances carved into vegetables or fruits were there to frighten away spirits that were not welcome. These carved jack-o-lanterns were placed on thresholds and in windows to keep the bad spirits away. The jack-o-lanterns of today range from those that are still quite fearsome to designer carved pumpkins whittled with the help of paper templates.

Costumes and Trick-or-Treating

As the legend goes, during the Samhain festival, it was common to dress up in costume as either a way to hide from the bad spirits expected to be about on that night, or to scare them away. This tradition, too, has undergone a complete transformation.

Some tales allege that when the tradition first started, it was ordinary only for men to dress as women, and women as men. Other tales contend that scary costumes were a way to frighten away the undead. Either way, the Halloween costumes of the here and now can include anything from scary skeletons to princesses, or from ninjas to the stars of pop-culture.

Witches

How witches came to be associated with Halloween is not so clear in the annals of history, but it has been speculated that it was the Wiccan religion that first began the Samhain festival, thus starting the tradition of Halloween. It has been confirmed that witches (real ones who practice the Wiccan religion) consider Samhain to be one of the eight Major Sabbats, or holy days. This day, for Wiccans, symbolizes a new year, and the Samhain festival of old was a time for witches to reflect on the year past and embrace the new. The Samhain traditions of Wiccans continue today, in a much more serious fashion than the commercial holiday we all know as Halloween.

It is easy to see that the handing down of traditions is much like whispering a phrase in someone’s ear and hearing how dramatically that same phrase has been altered by the time it comes back to the originator. While some, such as Wiccans, still hold the basic traditions and rituals of Halloween close to their origins, the holiday enjoyed today is a far different animal than the one that began in ancient times.

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