Ghosts, skeletons, witches, haunted houses, and noisy spirits. That’s how you celebrate Halloween. But did you know about the long history of All Hallows Evening and why it’s one of the most important holidays in the Northern hemisphere? Keep reading to learn how folklore traditions and old myths marked the 31st of October!
As I’m writing this, if I turn my head to the right, I can see the grey sky. The roads reflect the lights of the passing cars. The rhythmic sound of the rain induces a trance-like state. I have a warm cup of coffee and I’m wearing my sweater – for the first time this year!
There’s something special about this season, right? The juxtaposition of the hostile, wet weather with the safety and coziness of a warm blanket. But there’s more…
You can feel it in the air. The sort of eerie feeling, the intangible sensation that a lot is changing. Things we can’t really see but only experience via our intuition.
October was always considered a transitional month. From the warm and inviting summer to the harsh and cold winter. It’s during these 31 one days that we celebrate one of the most important holidays; Halloween.
In recent years, we’ve forgotten how to celebrate Halloween. We think it’s a time to wear silly costumes and go to parties, without recognizing the folkloric and mythological influences.
One of the major goals of my writing recently has been to shed light on the real aspects of what we consider folktales and superstition. And All Hallows’ Eve is perhaps one of the best examples of how we’re still participating in ancient practices.
The Origins of Halloween
First of all, let’s break down the etymology of the word. It’ll actually reveal a ton of information about the roots of the celebration.
Halloween or Hallowe’en is a contracted form of the phrase “All Hallows’ Eve”; the night before “All Hallows Day”, which means All Saint’s Day.
Even though we encounter the term All Hallows – hallows meaning saints – it wasn’t until the 16th century that it was used in that manner.
The specific word Halloween was used by the Anglican Communion in the early 18th century, borrowed by the Scots.
Christian Influence on Halloween
The influence of the Christian dogma is undeniable. The following day, All Saints’ Day, is intended to celebrate the saints, martyrs and souls of those who have passed.
Traditions like ringing bells or criers in black robes roaming the streets were common. It is said that during medieval times, when the Church didn’t have enough money to showcase Saint’s relics, people of the clergy would dress as Saints.
Another interesting tradition is keeping vigil; sleepless nights preceding a big feast. Beyond that, baking soul cakes and carving crosses wasn’t uncommon.
As we’re getting deeper into the Dark Ages, superstition and irrational fear took over, making Halloween an overt “ritual” against these darker spirits and the “influence of witches”.
The practice of lighting fires and jack-o-lanterns, similar to the Walpurgis Night, was to drive off evil spirits and protect Christian folks from being haunted.
People would wear masks to hide from tormented souls looking to get vengeance so they could move on.
Christian minister Prince Sorie Conteh wrote: “It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the next world. In order to avoid being recognized by any soul that might be seeking such vengeance, people would don masks or costumes to disguise their identities”.
It’s worth highlighting that this notion, the existence of an intermediate state, was questioned later on as a pagan belief, against the idea of predestination. Eventually, Halloween became a day where we celebrate our dead. Families would gather around graves, fires, and vigil bonfires until the sun came out.
But in reality, a lot of these practices seem to be couched in ancient traditions and rituals. And their Christianization was slow and gradual.
The True Traditions of Halloween
It’s not uncommon for a new religion to take over and assimilate the traditions of the common folk. Early Church Fathers had an unmatched ability in terms of infusing Christian dogma with the Pagan beliefs of the indigenous population.
From things like placing the birth of Jesus Christ in December near the Yule Celebration to replacing May Day with the Walpurgis Night.
They were able to reshape the pagan calendar so it was easier for us to adopt the new dogma.
In almost all cases, people simply kept practicing their own traditions, never actually giving them up but adopting different terminology.
Halloween is no different.
Samhain was an old Celtic festival that means “Summer’s End” in Old Irish. It’s the end of the harvest season and the coming of winter.
(Note: The way seasons are experienced in different countries can affect our celebrations. I’m coming from the Mediterranean region where the harvest can continue months after October. So, we have a similar celebration in February – probably inspired by the Roman Parentalia, a festival for the dead)
October is a month of liminality. The veil becomes thin during Halloween, and according to Irish mythology, elves and fairies could interact with our world.
Specifically, the supernatural race of Aos Si would climb from their dwellings and roam our plane.
Many of the celebrations surrounding Halloween are a way to “keep up” with the supernatural neighbours and develop a good relationship with them so they don’t cause any trouble.
Later on, the Aos Si were associated with all of the Celtic Gods and souls of the dead that the Irish, Scots, and Brits used to worship before their Christianization.
How to Celebrate Halloween Today
It can be difficult to differentiate the Christian from the Pagan lineage.
The syncretic nature of Halloween has created a special holiday with multiple different customs that all point towards the same direction; honoring the dead.
Today, we can continue this hundred-year-old celebration using hundred-year-old practices that have been passed on from one generation to another.
Trick or Treat and Guising
Every year dozens of little skeletons, princesses, cowboys – some adults too – will hit on your door and exclaim “Trick or Treat!”. But what happens if you don’t treat them?
Well, people used to dress up as supernatural creatures, gods, and spirits asking for food. They were essentially accepting offers on the behalf of these otherwordly beings as a way to show their hospitality.
In Christianity, the practice of souling was similar. The poor, lower-class would knock on the door of the rich and ask for donations in exchange for prayers for their dead.
Another aspect of wearing scary masks and costumes like skeletons and the reaper is a manifestation of the memento mori of Christian eschatology.
Bonfires and Jack-o’-Lantern
Sympathetic magic wasn’t uncommon in the past. They believed that by imitating certain actions or behaviours, they could cause a similar effect.
In the case of guising, people thought that by wearing these costumes they were imitating these supernatural beings.
Bonfires represented the cleansing power of the sun. Smoke and ashes would purify and protect the people from the Otherworld beings.
Jack-o’-lanterns were originally masks or turnips with a candle in them. They are supposed to scare the devil away but their original purpose was to prank people who were unfortunate enough to stumble across one!
The Occult Symbology of Halloween
We’re fascinated by the unknown. We’re hardwired to unearth the esoteric secrets of the world… and our psyche.
Halloween offers the opportunity to explore the supernatural in a safe way. By imitating vampires, werewolves, scary monsters we become desensitized to their shocking effects.
Haunted houses and scary movies have a similar purpose. But some people take some of the seemingly symbolic practices much more seriously.
The method of scrying and mirror gazing is simple. You look into the mirror or concentrate on a reflective surface, like water, and you try to discern shapes that might hint at a future event.
It is said that during Halloween, women would hold a candle in front of a mirror and their future husband would appear.
Another technique of divination was to choose between items while wearing a blindfold. Whatever you picked, had a different meaning. For example, a coin meant you’d become rich and a bean meant you’d remain poor!
Contacting the Dead
As I’ve already mentioned, people believed that during the night of the 31st of October, the veil separating our world from the otherworld became thin. Spirits could pass through and interact with us.
Naturally, we want to talk to our loved ones that have passed on. People have used many ways to do that, from Ouija boards to mediumship and tarot cards.
Ghosts, Witches, and the Paranormal
Squeaky doors, howling winds, and half-lit corridors can give fodder to our untamed imagination. Seeing ghostly emanations and hearing witches laughing hysterically wasn’t uncommon.
We often associate this time with increased paranormal activity. Classic horror books like Frankenstein and Dracula were written in the background of this spooky season.
Also Read: The 8 Most Evil Mythological Characters
The Commercialization of Halloween
- Having said all that, I believe it’d be naive to ignore the major influence of consumer culture on Hallowe’en
- Costumes from major archetypical characters became pop culture references
- Trick or treat doesn’t have the intention it used to have
- Parties have replaced the meaningful rituals
- The symbolic elements of Halloween are now considered superstition
- “Halloweeny” products dominate the market a month before
- It’s an excuse to drink and eat excessively
Unfortunately, this is the fate of many of our holidays. But if you understand their deeper meaning, you can still achieve the intended effect. What do I mean specifically?
A Rite of Passage
These celebrations are our eccentric way of articulating the passing of time, the transition from one season to another.
Halloween represents a rite of passage for the community, ensuring we survive the harsh winter together and bond with each other.
So, even though All Hallows’ Eve has lost its original meaning, you can still celebrate with your loved ones and remember those who already left us.
Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you carve a pumpkin or bake soul cakes. What matters is that you do it alongside your community and friends.
And that’s particularly important in 2022…
Have a spooky, scary, frightening Halloween this year!
P.S – I mostly talked about the European costumes but I’m interested to know how the rest of the world is celebrating the day. Leave a comment below!
George K has been immersed into the world of myths and dreams for a very long time now, attempting to find the numerous symbolisms and meanings attached to them. He is a prolific writer along with being an independent researcher. Contributing his knowledge and learnings to several magazines and blogs, he has the unique ability to simplify and explain even the most intricate subjects.