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San Clemente Journal

Halloween Traditions; Why We Do What We Do.

Sep 19, 2022 01:39PM ● By Anne Batty
by Anne Batty

From costumes to tricks and treats, pumpkin carving, apple bobbing and more, Halloween is full of time-honored traditions embraced by young and old alike. But while most of us know the “what” of these traditions many of us are unaware of the “why.”

 Like many things we commemorate today, this holiday originates from an ancient belief and practice. It stems from the Celtic festival, Samhain in which the Celts of the areas now known as Ireland, the United Kingdom and France, celebrated harvest time each year. Believing that there was a spiritual as well as physical world, one with a barrier breachable at this time of year, they lit bonfires and dressed in costumes to ward off the spirits (fairies) during this festival. Then in the eighth century Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as a time to honor saints, incorporating some of the traditions of Samhain. Designating this date as All Saints Day, the evening before became known as All Hallows Eve (a time to remember the dead), later evolving into what is now called Halloween.

Since that time, this holiday has become a mainstay in the American culture, and many of the things enjoyed in celebrating this holiday today have their origins in the legends and practices of the ancient past. Oftentimes, knowing the whys of what we do, makes what we do have more meaning. 

 Black and Orange
The traditional colors of the holiday come from the Celtic belief that black represents the death of summer while orange symbolizes the autumn harvest season.

Lighting Bonfires
For much of the early history of Halloween, bonfires were used to light the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

Carving Jack-o’-Lanterns
According to an Irish myth, turnips were originally used for carving instead of pumpkins. As the legend goes, a man named Stingy Jack repeatedly trapped the Devil, letting him go only if guaranteed Jack would never go to Hades. Upon his death, rejected by Heaven he was forced to wander the earth as a ghost. The Devil gave Jack a burning lump of coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. As a result, locals began carving scary faces into their own turnips to frighten the evil spirits away. 

Wearing Scary Costumes
During Samhain the Celts dressed as animals and monsters so the spirits would not recognize, terrorize or kidnap them.

 Trick or Treating
There are generally three theories about the origin of this practice. 
 •  Celtic People would leave food out to appease the spirits.
 •  Middle Ages children and poor adults would collect food and money from local homes in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day. This practice was called “souling.”
 •  German-American tradition suggests that there was a time when children would dress in costume and call on their neighbors to guess their identity. They would be rewarded with food, fruit, nuts, coins or toys if no one could identify them.

Pranking often varies by culture, but the pre-Halloween tradition known as Devil’s Night is credited with its origin. Samhain and eventually All Souls Day also included good-natured mischief. When Irish and Scottish immigrants came to America they brought with them the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of the Halloween celebration. All customs are said to have initiated this practice.

Candy Corn
Originally called “chicken feed” and sold in boxes with the slogan “something worth crowing for,” it was originally just an autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time. It became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating grew in popularity in the U.S. during the 1950s. 

 Black Cats 
The idea of being spooked by black cats dates back to the Middle Ages when cats were considered to be a symbol of the Devil. It was also believed that women considered to be witches used black cats to assist in their dark magic. 

Bats were likely present at Samhain. The Celts lit large bonfires which attracted insects, which in turn attracted bats. Spotting bats soon became connected with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the eeriness of bats with a number of superstitions built around the belief that bats were the harbingers of death.

Bobbing for Apples
The origins of this tradition are rooted in love and romance. Tracing back to a courting ritual that was a part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance, it was said that a young man or woman could predict their future relationships based on who won the game. 

Candy Apples
The Roman Goddess Pomona’s name comes from the Latin word for apple “pomum.” During the festival she was often represented by and associated with apples. But the apples representing the festival eventually becoming candied was believed to be an accident. It is said that William W. Kolb, a candy maker in Newark, New Jersey experimenting with red cinnamon candy to sell at Christmastime dipped apples on sticks into the red glaze and put them in his shop window to showcase his other candies. Instead the candied apples were a hit, becoming treats for Halloween beginning in the early 1900s.