Something wicked: the history of Halloween

“Tis now the very witching time of night/When churchyards yawn and Hell itself breathes out contagion to this world.”

 

Hamlet was speaking of the time between dark and light, the time when shadows are longest and the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. The time when “grim, grinning ghosts come out to socialize.”

 

That was the purpose of the pagan holiday of All-Hallows-Even (“evening”) or All Souls Day linked to the Gaelic festival of Samhain (also known as Samuin, pronounced “sow-in” or “sow-an”). Samhain, beginning sometime around the 10th century meant “summer’s end” and celebrated at the end of the harvest with large bonfires and feasting over several days, marking the end of the “lighter” half of the year and the beginning of the “darker” half.

 

The Celts and others who celebrated this festival believed that the veil between the worlds thinned so much that the spirits of the dead returned to this plane of existence and shambled alongside the living. Turnips were carved into lanterns to remind everyone of the souls that were stuck in Purgatory. This tradition, extradited to North America, would be continued using pumpkins, larger and more readily available harvest symbols, nicknamed jack-o’-lanterns. They were carved with horrifying and gruesome faces in order to ward off evil spirits and malignant demons.

 

Costumes were first used as part of the festival fun, but also by young Gaelic men to ward against malicious spirits and was later known as “guising.” Children would go door to door offering to do a “trick” in return for some kind of treat, usually candied apples or tarts. The use of the word “trick” also implied, though idly, that failure to procure said treats would result in the perpetration of a prank.

 

Games like apple bobbing and divination have also enjoyed centuries of popularity. Unmarried girls were told that, by passing a mirror at a certain time, their future husband’s face would appear, or that by peeling an apple and tossing the long strip behind themselves or into water, the first letter of their future husband’s name or occupation would be shown in the shape of the peel.

 

Halloween is the time of spooks, goblins, demons, feasting and fun, and its traditions continue to grow in popularity the world over.

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