October 28, 2005

Where Halloween came from

By Ana Hernandez-Bravo

The candy has been bought, separated and in a bowl ready to hand out, the costumes are ready down to their last detail, the haunted houses are ready to deliver their last big scare. The Halloween celebrations seem to put an end to summer and officially welcome the cool crisp fall season.

Since today Halloween is more associated with a great excuse to dress up for a party and trick-or-treating, the old cultural meanings of the holiday and the significance of the change in season has been lost.

Halloween actually started as a Celtic festival called Samain which means “sum-mer’s end,” This celebration marked the death of the old year and the advancement of the winter season. This night was the one in which the boundary between the living and the dead was at its thinnest and the spirits could make contact with the living world.

Many different religions and cultures have similar celebrations, such as Dia de Los Muertos, around this time of year which shows the importance of the passing into the fall and winter seasons that are commonly associated with death.

Today there are much more recognizable symbols of this festivity such as bats, skeletons, cats, and jack-o-lanterns. Bats were chosen to be connected with Halloween because of their association with witches (which are a staple of Halloween iconography) and because many believe that they were creatures of evil because of their nocturnal activity. Cats (especially black ones) were linked to mystery and sorcery. Cats were also linked to witches as being their familiars and were many times killed on site. Even today owners of black cats are encouraged to keep their feline companion indoors on Halloween for fear of being harmed or stolen to use in rituals.

Skeletons are the closest link there is to the original Samain celebration because they are symbols of the cycle of death and rebirth. Although they are commonly used to help setup a macabre mood setting their true meaning is that of viewing death as a natural part of living.

The jack-o-lantern is probably the most recognized symbol of Halloween. Although there are many stories and links throughout history regarding the jack-o-lantern many people today don’t know that they started off as hallowed out turnips that were carved to be hand held lanterns. But turnips were not the only vegetable used for this purpose. The thick stems of cabbage plants were also set up in a similar style and were called “kail-runt torches.”

Even in the recent past there are countless urban legends and precautions that many children (who are now in their twenties, thirties, and even forties) heard about the centered around their trick-or-treating activities. The most common was that of having candy checked for tampering which meant that it could contain poison or drugs. Not to mention the famous “razor-blade hidden in the apple” account which led many children’s parents to take extreme measures, such as having the candy bags x-rayed, to make sure the treats were safe. Not to mention the lye covered bubble gum, smarties that were actually sleeping pills, and of course the Pixy Stix filled with potassium cyanide. Luckily, while it is still strongly suggested that Halloween candy be screened by an adult, the number of poisoned children has dropped significantly.

In the past Halloween was seen as the night when the spirits came out to cause trouble and today Halloween is still a night for revelry that spans many age groups. So while getting ready to dress up, pass out candy, and have yourself a good scare, it can still be fun to look back and find the meaning behind the holiday that makes being scared feel more like having fun.

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