As with every other major festival or holiday in the calender, there are countless customs, legends and superstitions associated with Halloween. Although the festival has links to Christianity, some of the superstitions surrounding it are (as is often the case) far older than that, dating back to the pre-Christian fire festival of Samhain, which marked the beginning of the Celtic new year.
Some of these are still practiced in one form or another today, others are more unusual or have fallen out of common usage. This Halloween, we’re going on a spooky journey through some of these seasonal traditions and superstitions, starting with one you will probably be very familiar with…
Pumpkins and Jack O’Lanterns:
There are several possible explanations for the tradition of carving pumpkins (or, traditionally, turnips) and placing candles inside them at Halloween. There appears to have been an ancient custom of using brightly lit lanterns to ward off the evil spirits which lurked abroad in the darkening days of late Autumn – modern Jack O’Lanterns may well be a reflection of this superstition.
Slightly more gruesomely, there is also a suggestion that the faces commonly carved into Jack O’Lanterns actually hark back to a Celtic tradition of placing their ancestors’ skulls on their doorsteps during the Samhain period. Equally ancient is the association of light with life, thus linking a lit up pumpkin with the potential life in the crop seeds that lie dormant underground in the Autumn.
But why are they called Jack O’Lanterns? For that, we have to turn to Ireland, a country long famed for its myths and legends. The story goes that there was once a mean and devious man called Jack, who managed to trick the devil twice. When Jack died, his behaviour in life immediately disqualified him from entry into heaven – but neither would the devil, still smarting from Jack’s tricksy antics, let him into hell.
Instead, Jack was doomed to wander for all eternity, and the devil sent him off into the darkness with only a burning coal to light his way. Somehow acquiring a turnip from somewhere, Jack placed the coal inside and set off on his endless journey, becoming known as ‘Jack of the Lantern’ – a name that, over time, became ‘Jack O’Lantern’.
Other stories describe the original Jack O’Lantern as a mischievous spirit who haunted lonesome roadways by boggy land with his light, luring the unwary and unsuspecting traveller into the marshes where he or she would come under the not always benevolent power of the fairies…
Other Halloween and Samhain Superstitions:
– Burning new candles at Halloween is said to bring good luck – particularly if the candles are orange, lit at midnight on Halloween, and left to burn until dawn, however dangerous that might be! It is also said that if you stare into the flame of a candle on Halloween night, you will get a glimpse into the future.
– You can also ensure good luck for the following year by scratching a personal mark onto a stone, throwing it into the fire and then retrieving it (whether that’s before or after the fire goes out, I’m not sure). Not finding your stone, or it being damaged by the heat in some way, is considered bad luck.
– This is also the time of year to take stock of your past, to rid yourself of problems or negative relationships and situations in your life. This, it is said, could be achieved by writing them down on a piece of paper, which would then be burned as part of a ceremonial cleansing.
– Samhain was seen as a time to remember those who had died and to welcome those who were born during that year. If you were born at Samhain, it was commonly believed that you would have ‘second sight’, and thus would be able to see and communicate with spirits – although if you wanted to avoid evil spirits in your home it is said you should walk backwards and anti-clockwise round your house three times before the sun sets on Halloween…
– To remember the souls of the dead, cakes (known as ‘Soul Cakes’, unsurprisingly) would be baked. These would often contain small tokens, each with a particular meaning for the individual who finds them: for example, a pea indicated poverty and a coin fortune, a ring meant you would marry and a button that you would not, and a wishbone indicated you would obtain your heart’s desire.
– Animals play their part in Halloween superstition. We all know that a black cat crossing your path indicates bad luck, but were you aware that a bat flying three times around a house is an omen of death? Or that any spiders you see on Halloween may be the spirits of those you have loved and lost watching over you?
– Scottish fishermen would apparently wade out into the sea (in late October? Seriously cold waters in that part of the world!) and pour a libation of beer into the water as an offering to a sea dragon-like creature known as the Shoney. What was, in effect, buying the beastie a pint would ensure a successful year’s fishing. However, some accounts of the Shoney are not quite so homely, telling gruesome tales of Viking dragon worship and human sacrifice!
And now it’s time to change tack a little, and head on over to Part 2 of this Another Kind Of Mind Halloween Special to find out some of the oddest and most random ways to predict your romantic future at this time of the year…