If you suffer from samhainophobia, continue reading at your own risk.
Halloween’s Celtic beginning
Samhain (pronounced SOW-in) was an ancient Celtic harvest festival celebrating the beginning of a new year before the dark of winter set in. The Celts believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth on October 31, the eve of the new year.
Some of these ghosts came back to damage crops and cause other mayhem. In an attempt to appease them, the Celts lit huge bonfires in which they sacrificed crops and animals. They wore costumes made of animal heads and skins to avoid detection by the restless ghosts and demons.
Friendlier spirits also visited during the night. The Celts set places at their table for these dead relatives and friends. They also left treats for them on their doorsteps and along the sides of the road.
The Celts believed the boundaries between the worlds of the living and dead were more permeable during Samhain, so it was a good time for the Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the future. This tradition of fortune-telling remained even after the Romans took over Celtic lands.
Predicting the future
Like they did in other conquered lands, the Romans craftily combined Celtic traditions, like Samhain, with their own, in this case, a celebration of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit, trees and fertility.
A new fortune-telling tradition began around Pomona’s symbol, the apple. During the annual harvest festival once known as Samhain, young people bobbled for apples floating in water. The first person to bite into one would be the next person to get married.
All kinds of superstitions about the future became popular Halloween traditions. Scottish girls searched for images of their future husband in wet sheets hung in front of the fire. Others believed they would see their future husband’s face in a mirror if they looked in one while walking downstairs at midnight on Halloween.
Many of these fortune-telling traditions came over to America with Irish and Scottish immigrants. In Scotland, girls used cabbage stumps and apple pairings to predict the identity of their future husbands. In America, this tradition morphed into a Halloween activity loved by some little boys and girls (guilty!) of throwing cabbage and other rotten vegetables at each other.
Today’s pumpkin mania can be blamed on an old Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. Jack played a lot of tricks on the devil, like getting the devil to pay for his drinks or climb trees to pick fruit for him. Jack always managed to avoid punishment by tricking the devil into promising he wouldn’t claim his soul.
When Jack died, God wouldn’t let him into heaven, and since the devil couldn’t claim his soul, he sent Jack off into the night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish called his ghost, “Jack of the Lantern.”
To scare away evil spirits, people made their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips, beets or potatoes and placing the lit vegetables near their door or in their windows. When the Irish immigrants brought this tradition to America, farmers began growing pumpkins to take advantage of a new seasonal market.
Trick or treat
The American “trick or treat” tradition began in the early 20th century, but its roots go back to those Samhain animal costumes and treats left at the door for spirits. In the Middle Ages, the tradition continued: children dressed up in costumes and went from door to door begging for food, including pastries called ‘soul cakes,’ in exchange for songs and prayers said on behalf of the dead. The church preferred this practice of distributing soul cakes instead of the ancient practice of leaving food out for wayward ghosts.
Today, more than 93% of children under the age of 12 go trick-or-treating. It’s all about the candy. Halloween, the second highest grossing commercial holiday after Christmas, is the largest candy-purchasing holiday. The most popular candy in the country is (my weakness) Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
Ghouls and ghosts
Ghosts wander everywhere on Halloween, even in the White House. Mary Todd Lincoln told several friends she heard President Jackson stomping and swearing through the halls. But the White House’s most active ghost is President Lincoln.
The wife of President Coolidge saw the ghost of Lincoln looking out the window of the Oval Office. One night during World War II when Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was staying at the White House, she heard a knock on her bedroom door. After opening the door, she fainted upon seeing Lincoln standing there in his top hat.
Eleanor Roosevelt felt Lincoln’s presence when she worked at night in her study, the Lincoln Bedroom. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who also stayed at the White House during World War II, came out of his evening bath one night, naked and smoking a cigar, to find Lincoln sitting by the fireplace in his room. I wonder what they talked about.
You wouldn’t want to stay in the White House if you suffer from phasmophobia, the fear of ghosts. Samhainophobia is, as you might have guessed, the fear of Halloween. Another seasonal phobia is wiccaphobia, the fear of witches.
During the Halloween season, animal shelters don’t allow the adoption of black cats. Too many people have brought them home to use as props and then returned them to the shelter. Now that’s evil. The association of black cats and bad luck started in the Middle Ages when people believed witches avoided detection by turning themselves into black cats.
Release your inner Michelangelo for dinner tonight — sculpt a dead hand out of meatloaf. Although a bit disgusting to look at, it’s really delicious. Enjoy your treats!
Two years ago on Gusto: Pumpkin Smoothie
Four years ago: Sausage-Stuffed Acorn Squash
Five years ago: Linguine with Walnut Pesto
Six years ago: Cranberry Nut Bread
Creative Commons licensed photos by Phyllis (witchy house), Brian Talbot (jack-o’lanterns) and Hartwig HKD (ghostrider).