Is Halloween really what we think it is?

BY TAVA HOAG

"Witches' hats and harvest moon

Ghosts that dance to haunted tune.

Apple, goodies, food galore Halloween has this and more.

Fairies, gnomes, and funny clowns

Mom and I go' round the town.

Cats and pumpkins, friends to meet

Everyone says Trick or treat!"

                                                -anonymous

 

Orange and black themed displays take over stores. Candy screams at shoppers from every shelf. Witches, black cats, and harvest moons take their places on greeting cards. On the 31st of October, ghosts and goblins roam the town carving jack-o-lanterns to light their way. They knock on doors and demand a treat, then quickly scamper away. For the entire month, scary movies play on television and people visit haunted attractions in the hopes of purposely being scared.

In the 21st century, Halloween is a huge deal. It’s the third largest holiday in the United States, behind Christmas and Easter. The haunted attractions industry was created purely for Halloween, and is now worth over a billion dollars. Candy and costume companies alike market their brands to sell vast amounts of their products during this season. It’s a competition to make the most money. In a world where Halloween has become nothing more than a commercialized holiday full of expensive candy, costumes, and scares, we may be forgetting what it was really all about.

Halloween, Samhain, All Soul’s Day, Snap-Apple Night, Bonfire Night, All Hallows Eve…the list goes on and on. Most people don’t understand the origins of this diverse holiday or why it is so misunderstood. Halloween has an ever changing nature, and because of this, it has been adapted for countless purposes throughout the globe. The Halloween we know and celebrate today is not the same Halloween celebrated 100 years ago in Victorian America, nor is it the ancient Celtic Thanksgiving-like festival of Samhain. In fact, Halloween used to be a distant cousin of Valentine’s Day. It was a night when love was explored in magical ways. Gatherings were held and  games of romance were played until the sun came up the following day.

Before Halloween made its way to America with the Irish and Scottish immigrants, it held great prominence in the British Isles. But not in the way that many think it did. There was no trick-or-treating, or scary costumes, or even jack-o-lanterns. Instead, there were fortune telling rituals celebrated every year on this day. It was a time to delve into one’s future. No one described the spirit of the holiday better than the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. Burns has a poem entitled Hallowe’en of 1785 which provides insight into the traditional festival atmosphere.

In the poem, Burns paints the evening with careful detail. It all starts with, “merry, friendly, countra-folks, Together did convene, To burn their nits, an’ pou their stocks, An’ haud their Halloween.” This was a very popular ritual back in the day and involved examining the stalks of kale to determine the nature of one’s future spouse. Next, the Burns poem discusses the tradition of three lasses pulling oats. Each girl pulls a stalk, and if one of the three should lack the grain at the top, then that girl will not enter marriage as a virgin. Burns has particular fun with this custom, implying that a girl named Nelly lost her virginity to a boy named Rob while pulling her oat stalk out. “But Rab slips out, an’ jinks about, Behint the muckle thorn: He grippit Nelly hard and fast: Loud skirl’d a’ the lasses; But her tap-pickle maist was lost, Whan kiutlin in the fause-house Wi’ him that night.” Halloween as we know it was not born yet. Its great, great, great grandmother was used to amuse and trick people for the whole merry night.

The infamous nut test comes next. This involved naming two hazel nuts for a pair of lovers and then burning them in the bonfire lit on Halloween. The relationship’s success depended on how well the two nuts burned together. Another ritual using water was referred to as the “luggie bowls”. In the tradition three bowls were filled with different substances. The seeker was then blindfolded and told to reach into the luggies. The future was told depending on what bowl your hand was stuck into. The dish of clean water meant marriage to a virgin, the dirty water meant marriage to a widow, and nothing meant no marriage would occur. This is most likely where the modern party tradition of filling bowls with cold spaghetti and peeled grapes and calling them brains and eyeballs came from.

Lastly, Burns mentions in his poem a custom that was popular among curious young ladies well into the twentieth century, and perhaps even grew into something more sinister today. On Halloween night, a woman was said to be able to stand before a mirror with an apple in her hand. After slicing it into sections and blowing on each, the girl could look in the mirror and see the face of her true love reflected back at her. Today, many people take part in a similar ritual all through the month of October. Supposedly, if you go into a room with a mirror, shut all of the lights off, and chant “bloody Mary” three times, her evil spirit will appear before you in the mirror and kill whoever summoned her.

These traditions disappeared for a while as Christianity made its way across Europe. Halloween and all of the fun, romantic games were deemed evil, as people thought they dealt with black magic and should therefore no longer be part of the holiday. They steadily died out until decades later when they returned to Victorian Era America just as Halloween was beginning to catch on. Halloween became a yearly event mainly celebrated by adults. Costumed parties were held, masquerades became popular, and the traditions of ancient “snap-apple night” found a home with people who just wanted to have a wonderful time.

Halloween throughout the years has been so much more than simply candy, costumes, and scary movies. It’s been about the social gatherings where people talk, and laugh. It’s been about giving thanks to a successful harvest. It’s been about teaching children superstitions that will keep them safe from the real evils of the world. This modern ‘spooktacular’ day has endured more than many realize. It has fought hard against prejudices to become something extraordinary. It’s a holiday that we will cherish for years to come. This year on October 31st, let yourself remember the courage it took from people all over the world to keep the spirit of All Hallows Eve alive, and you too may find the inspiration to tell someone a tale of this magical night.