Halloween is a festival that dates back over 2,000 years, with origins in Celtic celebrations marking the beginning of winter. Believed to be a night when the boundaries between the living and the dead world are blurred, this night of magic and mystical happenings is steeped in traditions and superstitions. Join us as we explore some of the age-old Halloween customs and where they came from.
Trick or treating
This playful pastime dates back to the British Hallowmas practice of ‘souling’, where the poor would visit houses singing songs and offering prayers for the dead in return for ‘soul’ cakes made of bread and currants. At the time, it was believed that dead people remained in limbo, and prayers would help them to safely reach heaven.
A similar custom took place in Scotland, known as ‘guising’, which began as an attempt to scare off malicious ghosts. The earliest known use of the term ‘trick or treat’ appears in 1927, and in those days tricks involved blocking chimneys, blowing smoke through keyholes, setting horses free and vandalising vegetable patches.
The druids thought that spirits returned to the realm of the living on the night of November 1 and it was a common fear that they would take living people back with them at the end of the night. As a result, people wore gruesome masks and costumes to disguise themselves and to fool evil ghosts into believing they were already dead. Early costumes were gothic in nature, but later became based on popular characters from film and literature.
The custom of carving pumpkins into lanterns is thought to stem from an Irish folk legend about a prankster named Jack who tricked Satan into climbing a tree and trapped him there. On his death, he was denied entrance both to Heaven and to Hell, due to his dishonest deeds and trickery. Instead, the devil gave him an ember placed inside a turnip, to light his way in the darkness, so the lantern has come to symbolize a wandering soul in purgatory. Lanterns in Scotland were originally made from cabbage plant stems and other root vegetables.
When the Romans conquered ancient Britain, they brought with them the now pervasive apple tree. A symbol of fertility due to its associations with the Roman goddess Pomona, it was assimilated into Halloween customs, the most notable of which is apple-bobbing. Young bachelors and fair maidens would try to bite an apple floating in water, and it was thought that the first to bite would be the next person to marry. These days it is more of a light-hearted party game, and the apples are often suspended from string instead of floating in a bowl.
In days of old, young romantics would perform rituals on Halloween in the belief that the spirits would help them see the future. Heartsick hopefuls would eat an apple at midnight in front of a mirror while combing their hair in order to see your future husband in the reflection. Girls were told to carry a lamp to a natural spring in order to see their true love in the water, or carry an egg in a glass if they wanted to see their future children. Doubtful partners were advised to sleep with a love letter under their pillow in order to dream about whether their other half was faithful, and young ladies slept on rosemary sprigs and a silver sixpence in the hope of dreaming of The One. Weirdest of all, it was thought that if you catch and ensnare a snail on Halloween, by morning it will have written the first initial of your future spouse in its trail.
A solemn affair held in honour of the dead, dumb suppers were by definition silent, with guests forbidden to speak at any point during the meal. A seat at the head of the table was reserved for spirits, who would even have their own place setting. Traditionally held at the hour of midnight, it was thought that the dead would be present, and that if words were spoken; they would speak back in response.
Nut Crack Night
In ancient times, nuts were used to divine the future, and at one time played such a crucial role in Halloween that it was often known as Nut Crack Night. Plentiful at this time of year, hazelnuts were roasted in a pan over the fire and the time and manner in which they popped open was meant to symbolise future romantic success, or the lack thereof. Nuts were often ground into flour and made into special halloween cakes or bread that were eaten before bedtime in the hope that they would invoke prophetic dreams.
Why do we associate Halloween with witches? Folklore tells of covens gathering at this time of year, a myth that springs from Wiccans – early pagans who would meet on October 31 to celebrate one of the two major Sabbaths of their calendar. It is thought that if you want to meet a witch, you must put your clothes on inside out and walk backwards on Halloween, and at midnight one will appear before you.
Ebony felines get their connection with Halloween from their association with witchcraft. Due to their nocturnal habits, they were believed to be spirits of the dead, witches’ servants, or even witches in animal form, which has led to their notoriety as an omen of either good or bad luck, depending on which side of the Atlantic you hail from.
These blood-sucking beasts are not just associated with Halloween due to their vampiric connotations. Festivals at this time of year would often involve bonfires that would attract insects, and therefore bats. It was often thought that bats indicated the presence of ghosts or spirits, and if a bat flies around your house on Halloween, it is thought to signify death.
Halloween Superstitions is a guest editorial put together by Alton Towers Breaks; official providers of short UK breaks to Alton Towers.