Brief History of Halloween

Many of us know October 31st to be Halloween. What started with spiritual beginnings has now become a secular holiday, filled with candy, costumes, parties, fun, and bad horror movies.

However, many Pagans still celebrate the 31st with a spiritual flare. Some call it All Hallows Eve, others call it Samhain. Samhain is the name an ancient Celtic festival. This day was celebrated because November 1st was seen as the New Year. The Celtic people saw the doorway between the old and new year as a time when the veil between this realm and the realm of the dead was thinnest.

With the veil being thin, ghosts and spirits were able to come over to our world. While ghosts and spirits were able to come over, Druids, the Celtic priests, were able to take a glimpse into the future and received information from the other side from those spirits. During a time when the people were wholly dependent on the land and the crops, it’s no surprise that the Celtic people would take prophecies, especially about how the crops would do, and if sacrifices were needed, very seriously.

The Halloween that we know today was helped shaped by the Roman Empire. As the Romans conquered Celtic lands, two of the major festivals: Feralia (the passing of the dead) and Pomona’s day, the goddess of fruit and trees (potentially where we get apple bobbing from,) were blended with the festivities that were already taking place.

Festivities in America were very rigid at first, and was more common in the south, than in the strict, Protestant north. During the potato famine in 1846 in Ireland, America had a giant wave of Irish immigrants, which helped to spread Halloween nationwide.

The History channel sums up what happened then quite nicely:

"In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of these efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century."

In addition to parties, and children going trick-or-treating there are some other myths and misconceptions that are based in Halloween – one being that of the black cat. Some people still believe that a black cat crossing your path means bad luck. Around the world there have been other myths and superstitions that I thought were too interesting to ignore!

  • Sixteenth-century Italians believed that if a black cat jumped on the bed of an ill person, the person would soon die.

  • In Colonial America, Scottish immigrants believed that a black cat entering a wake was bad luck, and could indicated the death of a family member.

  • The Norse goddess Freyja drove a chariot pulled by a pair of black cats.

  • A Roman solder killed a black cat in Egypt, and was killed by an angry mob of locals.

  • Appalachian folklore said that if you had a sty on the eyelid, rubbing the tail of a black cat on it would make the sty go away.

  • If you find a single white hair on your otherwise-black cat, it's a good omen.

  • In England's border countries and southern Scotland, a strange black cat on the front porch brings good fortune.

In addition to black cat superstitions here are a few from Patti Wigington that surround other animals that are usually seem as creepy and therefore are perfect for this dark holiday:

  • One old folktale from Appalachia says that owls flew down on Samhain night to eat the souls of the dead. According to mountain legends, an owl hooting at midnight signifies death is coming. Likewise, if you see an owl circling during the day, it means bad news for someone nearby.

  • If the bats come out early on Samhain night, and fly around, it means good weather is coming. During the Middle Ages, the bat was associated with witches, dark magic, sorcery, and even talking to the dead. People in rural Scotland and northern England suspected bats of being messengers between witches and the devil.

  • Some people believe that if you see a spider on Samhain, it harbors the spirit of a dead ancestor, watching you... so don't squash it! Some parts of the world see the spider as a negative and malevolent being. In Taranto, Italy, during the seventeenth century, a number of people fell victim to a strange malady which became known as Tarantism, and it was attributed to being bitten by a spider. Those afflicted were seen to dance frenetically for days at a time.


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