We’re now solidly in the in-between or liminal time of autumn. It’s no longer summer and it’s not yet winter. We are between worlds. The leaves continue to turn and slowly die and drift away from their branches. Squirrels hide acorns in preparation for winter. Nature begins to ready herself for winter and so do we. In times past (and for some, still today), this was a time to prepare for the winter months by slaughtering animals and storing away food from the last harvest. Many traditions also see this as a time when the veil between worlds—the earthly and the spiritual worlds— is thin, a time for honoring our ancestors.
Halloween, celebrated by many on October 31, has its roots in much older customs and beliefs. Many of these customs are thought to have originated from a Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced “sow-in,” with the “ow” sounding like “cow”), which means “end of summer.” This festival was originally known as a festival of the dead. Christian traditions later adapted this to All Saints’ Day/All Hallows’ Day/All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween.
Many of the associated tropes or symbols of Halloween originate with this older tradition and other ancient beliefs. These include wearing costumes, trick-or-treating, the Jack-o’-lantern, the witch and the associated colors of orange and black.
At least as far back as the 16th century, folks in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Mann, and Wales would dress in costume during Samhain while going door-to-door. They would sing songs or recite verses in exchange for food at each home they visited. Wearing costumes represented impersonating the souls of the dead, which also protected the wearer from the spirits.
It’s thought that the Jack-o’-lantern began in Ireland and Scotland, originally in the form of hollowed turnips, which served as lanterns. This custom of using carved vegetables or gourds is also found in other cultures (For example, the Maori also used carved gourds as lanterns). As Irish and Scottish settlers made their way to North America, the turnips gave way to pumpkins and hence the tradition we see today using pumpkins for jack-o’-lanterns. They were first used in the U.S. during the harvest season prior to their association here with Halloween.
The association of witches with Halloween is somewhat complex. Of course there is the long history of witch hunts, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and men over the course of centuries, many of whom who were not witches at all and some who were likely the village wise person or healer, if anything. This history is itself complex and far-reaching and worthy of further inquiry. But given the pagan origins of Samhain, when the Christian church was assimilating these old customs those who resisted were often branded as witches. Also of note is the Greek goddess Hekate (Hecate), who was known as the goddess of witchcraft, magic, ghosts and the moon (among her other duties). Her associated colors were orange and black.
As you don your Halloween costume or perhaps prepare to celebrate Samhain, consider the history of these traditions. Remember those who have passed. Celebrate as we prepare to enter the dark winter months when life lies dormant until it re-emerges in springtime. Consider these cycles of life and death and rebirth, the notions of loss and letting go of what no longer serves us as a way of making room for what comes next.
(Image: Free image available on Pixababy)