Its October (surprise!) and with it comes the inevitable Halloween displays in the shops (followed closely by the Christmas decorations…) and although here in the Southern Hemisphere we should be celebrating Spring and the coming of Summer, those good old Northern Hemisphere traditions have a firm hold. So in the mode of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ I have compiled a wee list of some strange but true superstitions associated with Halloween. But first a bit of history…
In the northern hemisphere the first of November marks the beginning of winter and on the Christian calender is referred to as All Hallows Day when all the saints would be celebrated (‘hallows’ = very holy). Thus the day before became All Hallows Eve which in turn was eventually shortened to Halloween. Originally, the Western Christian Church observed All Saints/Hallows Day on May the first but in the ninth century AD it was moved to November the first.
A seemingly much older tradition says that it is a time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, when it is possible for the spirits of the ancestors to walk the earth. Referred to as Samhain – a term mentioned often in Irish mythology when many important and heroic events happen. Such traditions may well have a long pedigree. There is some evidence that the Neolithic passage tombs were aligned with the sunrise at the time of Samhain. In early Irish literature it is often seen as a liminal time when Aos Si (spirits/fairies) could come into our world more easily and offerings of food and drink were left out for them to ensure the people and their livestock survived the winter.
As an extension of this it was later believed that the souls of the dead would visit homes seeking hospitality and so feasts were held with a place being set for them at the table. Increasingly, this tradition is being adapted for the modern age with families now using Halloween as a time to remember loved ones who have passed away.
As a time between the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter it also became a time when people would take stock of food supplies, cattle would be brought down from summer pastures and animals would be chosen for slaughter. As part of the rituals associated with this time bonfires would be lit, sometimes two bonfires would be lit and people (plus livestock) would pass through the middle as a cleansing ritual. In parts of Scotland torches from the bonfire would be carried sunwise around the homes and fields to protect them.
Strange but True
Many of the superstitions associated with Halloween are often connected with the tradition of the spirits walking the earth and the assumption that some of these may have an evil intent. Thus, it was said if you wanted to keep evil spirits away you should walk three times around your house backwards before the sun sets. Or spend the evening with your pockets inside out and no evil spirit will accost you (and most likely neither will the living…). If you are lucky enough to be born on Halloween you will forever be protected from evil spirits.
Then there are those superstitions aimed at the overactive imagination – so if you hear footsteps behind you on Halloween night…DO…NOT…TURN AROUND…Furthermore, if you are out and about in the evening and the moonlight casts a shadow do not look at your own. Both of these only make me want to look.
There are some Halloween superstitions which are not so bad (depending on your perspective) – if you stand at a crossroads and listen to the wind you might here your future…just make sure it’s not a busy crossroads or your future might be rather short…For the unmarried make a dish of mashed potatoes and bury a ring in it, whoever gets the ring will be the first to marry. However, if that fails you can eat a salted herring on that night and you will dream of your future lover. Traditionally games such as apple bobbing all have their origins in divination traditions of Halloween – the first person to get a bite of the apple will be the next to get married…or you could peel an apple in one long strip and throw it over your shoulder, the shape it forms is said to be your future spouse whilst eggwhites dropped in water foretold the number of children you would have.
Spiders on All Hallows Eve get a reprieve from broom welding maniacs for it is considered bad luck to kill a spider on this day – it could be the soul of dead person from your family visiting.
Traditions associated with Halloween which we are more familiar with such as trick or treating, dressing up and pumpkin carving all have their origins in much earlier superstitions.
Thus dressing up was a way to confound the evil spirits who might wish you harm whilst pumpkin carving began as turnip carving. In the United Kingdom a turnip would be hollowed out and a crude face carved into it, then a candle would be placed inside and the whole scary apparition would be positioned in a window – a declaration to all potential ghouls that this house was already haunted. It was also considered a wise course of action to carry said turnip when travelling out and about on this night as a warning to the spirits to keep away. The proliferation of pumpkin jack o lanterns in North America essentially comes down to a lack of turnips…
Trick or treating (every childs reason for celebrating Halloween) is a much evolved version of the earlier tradition of ‘guising’, ‘mumming’ and ‘souling’. Guising was were ordinary folk would dress up in bizarre costumes and then would wander door to door singing and performing for wealthier people (mumming). Often the wealthy would share sweetmeats or a cake known as a soul cake in exchange for their prayers for dead relatives (souling). Guising and mumming were not restricted to Halloween. Even today, in the far west of Cornwall guising and mumming are carried out during the midwinter festival of Montol.