Halloween CAN Go on With These Fun Ancient Traditions
It’s official. Ireland – the home of Halloween traditions – has banned Halloween parties and traditional trick-or-treating festivities this year as tackling Covid-19 remains top of government’s priorities. Many other countries around the world are placing similar restrictions for fear that going door-to-door may aid transmission of the virus. But Halloween can go on. Many fun ancient traditions can be practiced and celebrated in the home, bringing joy to children as they have done for over 2,000 years.
The ancient origins of Halloween lie with the Celtic festival of Samhain, particularly as celebrated in Ireland. Samhain took place from October 31 to November 1, about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It was a celebration of the change of seasons – the harvest was coming to an end and winter was approaching. The Celts believed that the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest during this time, and that spirits of the dead, and the supernatural beings known as the Aos sí, could walk on Earth.
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In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III instructed Christian missionaries to merge Christian teachings with the beliefs of local populations so that Christianity would be more readily adopted. In the same vein, he moved the Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day – a day to honor martyrs and saints who died for their faith – from May 13 to November 1 to coincide with Samhain. The night before became All Hallows Eve – Hallowe’en.
Many of the Halloween traditions we see today combine festivities from the original celebration of Samhain with later practices that were adopted after the establishment of Christianity. Don’t let coronavirus stop kids from enjoying these fun ancient customs at home!
Even though trick-or-treating is out of the question, dressing up for Halloween is always a blast. (Deagreez / Adobe Stock)
Fearful that spirits and supernatural beings could cross into the world of the living during Samhain, the Celts would disguise themselves as ghouls and beings from the Otherworld so they would not be terrorized or carried away to the other side. Wearing a mask or disguise was believed to trick the spirits into thinking they were one of their own. Two thousand years later, and ghosts, ghouls and supernatural beings remain popular choices for Halloween costumes. And who needs to go out on the streets to enjoy good, old-fashioned dress ups?
Decorating in Black and Orange
The classic Halloween colors of black and orange trace their origins back to the Celtic festival of Samhain. Black represents darkness and the arrival of winter with its longer nights. It also symbolizes death, as Samhain was the time of year when the connection to the deceased was the strongest. Orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season and is also associated with fire.
While you may not have trick-or-treaters coming to your door, but your neighbors may still enjoy viewing the exterior of your traditionally decorated home or garden.
What could be better than an intimate celebration toasting marshmallows over a bonfire? (kuzmichstudio / Adobe Stock)
During Samhain, bonfires (and later candles) were lit to mimic the sun and hold back the darkness of the oncoming winter. The fires were believed to have protective powers and were used to ward off evil spirits. Crops and animal bones were burnt in the fires as offerings. You might want to leave the latter in the past!
In Ireland, all fires would be extinguished at sundown on October 31st, and a single blazing bonfire was lit at the Hill of Ward in County Meath, where Druids and their followers would gather for the annual feast of the dead, offering food to the unseen who had crossed into the realm of the dead.
Bonfires are still incorporated into many Halloween traditions around the world. One fun activity is to toast marshmallows over an open fire, either in a garden or simply over a fireplace or even a gas stove!
Candles represent the Samhain fire. Later, when Christianity was established, candles would be lit on All Hallows’ Eve and placed on the graves of the dead. Households throughout Europe would typically have candles burning in each room to guide the souls back to visit their earthly homes. These were known as soul lights. Why not turn off your lights and enjoy the eerie feeling of a candlelit home?
A carved pumpkin has become a symbol of Halloween celebrations around the world. (JenkoAtaman / Adobe Stock)
One of the most stereotypical symbols of Halloween is a carved-out pumpkin, depicting all manner of spooky faces, that has a candle placed inside. The original lanterns in Ireland, England and Scotland were carved from turnips or swedes, both symbols of the harvest.
Also known as the Jack O’Lantern, the lantern was also a motif of the Irish Christian folk tale of Jack, who was denied entry to both heaven and hell. He was condemned to wander the earth but asked the Devil for some light. He was tossed a burning coal ember which he placed inside a gouged-out turnip to light his way as he wandered aimlessly through the dark countryside. He became known as “Jack of the Lantern”, or Jack O’Lantern. Coronavirus is no excuse not to get carving!
The Celts believed that Samhain was a time when the future and past existed concurrently with the present. Druids would use this time to make prophecies about the future to guide their community. During the annual bonfire on the Hill of Ward, they would dress up in animal heads and skins and dance around the fire and tell fortunes.
Since this time, various forms of divination and fortune-telling games have been incorporated into Halloween celebrations, most of which focus on love, luck and marriage. In one Irish tradition, blindfolded ladies would go into a field and pull up a cabbage. If a substantial amount of earth was attached to the roots it indicated that their loved ones would receive wealth. The taste of the cabbage – bitter or sweet – would reveal the nature of their future marriage. Many still play these divination games at home during Halloween.
Apple bobbing is a Halloween party game you can still enjoy, as long as you keep it in the family! (seanlockephotography / Adobe Stock)
Bobbing for Apples
Apple bobbing is a Halloween party game in which people attempt to pick up apples floating in a tub of water using only their teeth. Bobbing for apples was never originally part of the Samhain tradition, but is thought to have been incorporated with the arrival of the Romans in Britain. Around November 1 st, the Romans celebrated a festival dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of fruits and harvests. Because of the historical association between the Celts and the Romans, some scholars believe the traditions from Samhain and the festival of Pomona were merged together. To keep yourselves Covid-safe, you may want to keep this game within the family!
In ancient times, innocent pranks were believed to be a way to bewilder evil spirts. Good-natured mischief was practiced during Samhain, and later, All Hallows Eve. But by the 18 th century, these pranks had escalated into forms of delinquency and vandalism that were typically carried out the night before Halloween, on October 30. This led to the night being dubbed “Devil’s Night” or “Mischief Night” in England.
Today, pranking is frequently incorporated into Halloween festivities, typically in the form of egging houses, smashing pumpkins, or covering yards with toilet paper. No doubt many feel a sense of relief that Covid-19 will curtail the usual neighborhood pranking, but there are plenty of ways that kids can still have their fun within the home!
Top image: It’s still possible to celebrate Halloween during the coronavirus pandemic. Source: JenkoAtaman / Adobe Stock