Halloween has a rich past, full of tradition and legend. The first people to celebrate it were the Celts, who called it Samhain. On this day they believed the barrier between worlds was at its thinnest — on this day the dead might walk the earth. This otherworldly nature has captured imaginations for centuries, leading to traditions and superstitions that still persist today. You might be surprised to learn just how little you know about this holiday.
1. Halloween is a Mix of Celtic, Catholic, Roman, and Pagan Traditions
The Celts may have been first to celebrate Halloween with Samhain, but there were plenty of other cultures that had similar holidays at this time of year. When the Romans reached Celtic territory in 43 AD, they brought their two October festivals – Feralia, to commemorate the passing on of the dead, and Pomona, celebrating the goddess of trees and fruit.
To the medieval Catholics, on the other hand, November 1st was All Saint’s Day (by decree of Pope Gregory) and later to the Protestants, who did not honour saints All Hallows’ Eve, a day when new Christians would dress up as angels, devils, and saints to exchange “soul cakes” – the origin of what we call trick or treating.
Of course the British have an entirely different holiday around this time of year, with Guy Fawkes Night on November 5. It commemorates the execution of Guy Fawkes for the plot to blow up the British Parliament with gunpowder.
2. Dressing Up Is About Mocking the Devil
Many Christians wonder if it’s right to take part in Halloween, considering the holiday to be a celebration of evil. The idea of dressing up like the devil (or his minions) seems like a poor idea in general, too. But this simply reflects ignorance of the holiday’s history.
Back when the Protestants co-opted the Catholic All Saints Day as All Hallows’ Eve, they believed in a quite literal devil. In their eyes, the best way to fight him was to attack his weakness, the pride which made him a fallen angel. In order to do this they depicted him with red horns and a silly tail as a way of mocking him, hoping the mockery would make him flee.
Since intent is often lost in time, many people have an unrealistic idea of what the whole tradition means.
3. Jack-O-Lanterns Come From A Man Named Jack
Irish legend holds that a thief named Jack once conned the devil into promising never to take Jack’s soul. When Jack died, he was refused entry into heaven due to his evil ways, and he could not go to hell either, thanks to the devil’s promise. Jack complained to the devil that he could not see in the darkness of life after death, so the devil laughed and threw Jack a glowing ember to light his way. Jack had a turnip in his pocket, so he carved it into a lantern and placed the ember inside as he walked the earth.
4. Dead Bodies Are Regularly Confused With Decorations
People who die around Halloween are occasionally confused with decorations. A mail carrier who noticed a dead body on a porch several days after Halloween did not report it, figuring it was a well-done prop. Realistic corpses hanging from trees have turned out to be suicides, and Los Angeles apartment dwellers were recently horrified to find the “dummy” they had ignored for a week was actually a woman who committed suicide by shooting herself in the eye.
5. Halloween Symbols Have Meaning
Spiders, black cats, and bats were considered to be symbols of witchcraft during the middle ages, and were associated with ill luck. The ancient Samhain ritual bonfires, too, had the function of driving away pestilent insects and attracting bats.
6. Halloween Full Moons Are Very Rare
Despite the stereotypes, it’s very rare to see full moons on Halloween. The most recent one was in 2001, the next will be in 2020.
7. Only Two People Ever Died From Poisoned Candy
Fears of poisoned candy are mostly unfounded. Only two people have ever died from poisoned candy on Halloween, and both involved perpetrators within the family. The first case, in 1970, was a boy who found his uncle’s heroin stash — the family put some heroin on the boy’s candy later in an attempt at a cover-up. The second case, in 1974, was a deliberate murder in an attempt to collect on insurance.
8. Costumes Were Originally Meant To Help People Blend In
During the Celtic celebration of Samhain, costumes weren’t meant to stand out — they were meant to help the living blend in with the dead as they walked the earth, or at least avoid being recognised. Who wants to be recognised by the departed in-laws anyway?
9. The Mexican Day of the Dead is the Anti-Halloween
Though they’re celebrated at almost the same time and both centre around death, Halloween and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) are polar opposites: where Halloween is based on fear of spirits and death, Dia de los Muertos is about embracing and celebrating death.
10. Trick-Or-Treating is Ancient and Modern at the Same Time
While the first known mention of trick-or-treating first popped up in the history books in 1927, the tradition goes back to soul cakes and the medieval times. Some people suggest that the term “trick or treating” comes from the Irish tradition of pranks, where people would offer poor children bribes as a way of combating mischief.
11. Halloween Tradition is Full of Superstitions
The idea of the veil between real and paranormal worlds parting on Halloween is not just about fear of the spirits that might come over from “beyond” — there are many superstitions about the holiday. Some believe that holding a mirror in one hand, a candle in the other, and walking backwards down the stairs on Halloween will let you see the person whom you will end up marrying.
12. Wiccans Still Celebrate Halloween as New Year
Halloween is still the Wiccan New Year, in keeping with the Celtic Samhain tradition. Much of Wicca comes from the traditions of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, and the calendar is no exception.
13. Halloween Is The U.S.’s Second-Most Commercial Holiday
Halloween is the second-most profitable holiday in the U.S., after Christmas. The American candy industry looks forward to $2 billion in sales (about 90 million pounds worth of chocolate) each October, and American buyers spend about $6 billion a year on Halloween.
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