All Hallows’ Eve, best known as simply Halloween, was not originally created as a night for kids of all ages to load up on sweet treats. In fact, the history of the celebration actually goes back to a Celtic tradition called Samhain, which means “end of summer.” It was an occasion meant to signify the final harvest. However, it also was a sombre night where the veil between the worlds was said to be lifted, where loved ones who had passed on to the other side could be summoned. This lead to it being deemed “spirit-night” by many Celtics. This is likely where the spooky feel of the holiday came from.
Of course, today, it is a much lighter, fun-filled celebration than it was originally. Here we look at some of the meaning behind Halloween traditions:
History of the Jack-o’-Lantern
One of the most common traditions associated with Halloween is carving pumpkins to make scary Jack-o’-Lanterns. So, let’s begin looking at the meaning behind Halloween traditions with this one. The practice started as a result of an Irish myth, which told the story of a man named “Stingy Jack.” The story begins when the devil invited Jack to have a drink with him. But, the aptly named “Stingy Jack” didn’t want to pay for his drink. Thinking on his feet, Jack asked the devil to turn himself into a coin, which would pay for the drinks. The devil did as Jack asked. Jack placed the “devil” coin into his pocket, next to a silver cross, which somehow prevented the devil from turning back into his evil self.
The story goes on and on and tells how Jack tricked the old devil year after year. At some point, a bargain was struck between Jack and the devil. The devil wouldn’t take Jack to hell and wouldn’t bother him for at least 10 years, if Jack would free him from his trap. All is well for many years. Eventually, though, Jack goes to meet his maker. Unfortunately for Jack, God doesn’t think too highly of him as a person, thus God sends him on down to hell. The devil recognized Jack and remembered all the tricks he had pulled, but true to his word didn’t accept Jack into eternal hell. Instead, he sent Jack back to earth where he forever roams the dark nights with only a burning coal to show the way. Apparently, old Jack used a carved out turnip to hold his coal and was referred to by many as “Jack of the Lantern,” which was later shortened to just “Jack O’ Lantern.” Eventually, people began making their own version of Jack’s lantern in the form of carved out gourds and, eventually, pumpkins.
The Tradition of Trick-or-Treating
In thinking about the meaning behind Halloween traditions, have you ever thought about why trick-or-treating exists? Well, unfortunately, the impetus of the trick-or-treat custom isn’t 100% clear. There are a few traditions that could be responsible, but no one is really sure which one was responsible for today’s practice of getting dressed up and going door-to-door for sweets on Halloween night. Likely it was a combination of several traditions. Perhaps the most likely source, however, is the Celtic celebration of “All Souls’ Day.” In an effort to offer an alternative to the pagan celebration of Samhain, the Christian church began celebrating “All Souls’ Day” on November 2nd. This was a celebration that honored the dead and featured bonfires and masquerades.
The going door-to-door part of trick-or-treat was likely due to the fact that during the celebration, poor people would visit wealthier households and promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives in exchange for a pastry. This element of the celebration was referred to as “souling.” It eventually evolved into a tradition where children went from house-to-house asking for gifts, usually in the form of ale, money or food.
The trick aspect of trick-or-treating was likely a result of a Scottish and Irish custom that was referred to as “guising.” This was another aspect of the same celebration, but included costumes. Also, instead of praying for the dead, children would recite a poem, sing a song, tell a joke or perform some other “trick” in order to get their “treat.”
The game of apple bobbing, where kids and adults try to catch floating apples in a bucket of water with only their teeth, is an odd one. Who honestly thought up this game? And why has it become synonymous with Halloween?
In looking at the meaning behind Halloween traditions, we couldn’t leave this one out. The tradition of apple bobbing actually dates back to Roman Britain, where their festival for remembering the dead was also in October. The Romans brought along with them an apple tree which was the representation of Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees. During the festivals, young unmarried people would attempt to bite into an apple – either floating in water or hanging on a piece of string. The first person who managed to catch an apple would be the next person allowed to marry.
Dressing Up in Scary Costumes
As a tradition, this one has roots in both European and Celtic history. It was believed that ghosts would come back to earth during Halloween. People, concerned they would be recognised by these ghosts, decided to opt for desperate measures. They walked around in masks so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. Eek. Bet this meaning behind Halloween traditions list will have you never looking at things the same way again.
Enjoyed reading about the meaning behind Halloween traditions? Why not have a read of some of our other articles, including Halloween In Girl World, As Told By Mean Girls and Absolutely Terrifying Scary Stories Told in 5 Words