Popular Halloween Traditions & Their Cultural Origins

Autumn. Fall. Spooky Season. The month of October holds a special place in the hearts of those who love Halloween. The parties, the decorations, the outings to haunted attractions and fall festivals are activities that can only occur when the leaves begin to change. But when did all of these fun traditions come about, and where did they all begin?

Jack-O’-Lanterns

The name “jack-o’-lantern” has a handful of myths and legends surrounding its origins, but the best known is derived from the Irish myth of “Stingy Jack”: a drunkard, deceiver, and manipulator known for his vile reputation. He was so terrible that Satan heard about him and came to Earth to collect his soul. Jack asked for one final drink before he departed, and Satan obliged his last request. Satan, under Jack’s spell of coercion, agreed to transform into a coin to pay for Jack’s final drink. Jack snatched up the coin and stuffed it into his pocket, right next to a crucifix. Because of this, Satan was unable to return to his true form, so he was forced to agree to Jack’s demand: that Satan would leave him be for ten years. 

Ten years later, Satan returned for Jack’s soul. But before taking his soul forever, Jack asked for an apple to eat as his last meal. Satan, fooled once again, climbed a nearby apple tree. Quickly, Jack surrounded the base of the tree with crucifixes. In order to get down, Satan had to agree to Jack’s demand again. This time, Jack insisted his soul never be taken to hell. 

Eventually, Jack met his end and was turned away at the gates of both heaven and hell. Jack was then doomed to wander the Earth for all eternity, with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack placed the glowing coal into a carved-out turnip–his figure forever referred to as “Jack of the Lantern” and then eventually, jack-o’-lantern. 

The Irish used turnips and potatoes to carve spooky faces, and lit the inside with a candle to frighten away the soul of Stingy Jack and any other malevolent spirits. When immigrants traveled to America, they brought the tradition with them and found that the pumpkin, a bountiful orange gourd, was the perfect fruit for carving faces! 

Today, in North America, jack-o’-lanterns are a staple of Halloween, as well as the entire season of fall. There are festivals dedicated to picking pumpkins from local farms, community-wide competitions for artfully carved faces, and even national competitions simply focused on “pumpkin chunkin,’” where competitors build catapults to launch pumpkins as far as possible. Pumpkin growers even strive to grow the biggest pumpkins on record, such as this one!

Jack-o’-lanterns today aren’t used for superstitious reasons, but you can still see them on doorsteps through the harvest season! 

Black Cats

Nailing down the time and place that black cats became a symbol of Halloween is difficult, but perhaps the stirrings of the superstition came about in Ireland during the Middle Ages. At that time, black cats were seen as the “familiars” of witches–beings gifted to witches by Satan and used to do a witch’s bidding. This distrust lingered on until the time of the early American Pilgrims who rejected anything related to magic and Satanism, especially during the “witchcraft hysteria” from 1560 to 1660 in the New England Colonies. 

Today, some still believe black cats bring bad luck, especially when they cross your path, because it’s thought to be a sign that you’ve been “noticed by the Devil.” 

According to Chloe Rhodes’ book, Black Cats and Evil Eyes, many cultures have different superstitions about black cats. If you visit Scotland, you’ll notice that a black cat’s arrival is seen as a positive–locals believe it is a sign of prosperity in the future. Alternatively, the Chinese believe that hunger and poverty are on the horizon if a black cat approaches.

In America, black cats still hold a negative stigma. Because they are tied to witches and witchcraft, they are a staple of Halloween. Don’t worry! These precious felines are slowly shedding that stereotype, especially with the help of animal shelters and adoption locations. There are “free” black cat adoptions during October in some places, as they are the least likely color of cat to be adopted. Their superstitious stories may be spooky, but in reality, they’re just the same as any other domesticated pet! 

Trick or Treat

Personally, I adore trick or treat: buying awesome candy for the kids to enjoy, handing it out on Halloween night, and seeing the creativity of their costumes each year. The trick or treat we see today in America has adapted to accommodate even more children and young people than ever before. Hosting candy collections in safe and controlled spaces has become very popular and are found in most towns and cities across America. Kids can now visit indoor locations, such as malls and schools for trick-or-treating, and even participate in a “trunk or treat” where kids visit decorated cars in the parking lot of a living community. There are even trick-or-treat events held on specific days for children who have certain sensitivities or disabilities, to make them more comfortable while collecting candy. 

This Halloween tradition finds its origins, once again, in the Celtic ritual of celebrating the end of the Harvest by dressing up as evil spirits. It was believed that as we moved from one year to the next, the veil between the living and the dead would be thin or overlap, and if anyone encountered an evil spirit, the costume acted as a defense mechanism, making the demon think you were one of them. 

This tradition was later altered by the Catholic Church and given the title “All Hallows’ Eve.” In this iteration, people dressed up as saints or angels and begged for food or money in exchange for a prayer or two. 

Today, it is still a beloved tradition, especially for children, to dress up and receive treats for one night (or a few) out of the year. 

Bobbing for Apples

To those who aren’t familiar with very traditional Halloween activities, bobbing for apples might seem pretty strange! A large bin is filled with water, and as apples float on the surface, kids try to catch one with their teeth–no hands allowed. 

The origin of this game has roots in the British Isles, most likely coming from old Celtic lore. According to author W. H. Davenport Adams, apple bobbing existed as a game of divination. After catching an apple in your teeth, you would then peel the skin longways and throw a piece over your shoulder. When it landed on the ground, it should have been in the shape of the initials of your true love.

Of course, supernatural practices and games, such as this divination game, have their ties to the harvest season, when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest and therefore the best time to participate in these activities. As time went on, bobbing for apples slowly found its way into modern Halloween traditions, with a much tamer purpose!

Bats

Some bats can be adorable, while others are downright creepy. There’s even a “vampire bat” that dines on animal blood! If we connect that cringe-worthy image of a blood-sucking bat to superstition and lore, we arrive at their association with witches. It is said that witches used the blood of these nocturnal animals in their “flying” concoctions. 

Their link to Halloween was solidified after Bram Stoker’s famous 1897 novel Dracula stated that vampires can shapeshift into bats. Vampires and witches are popular Halloween symbols, and, by association, so are bats. 

Black & Orange

Just as red and green are associated with Christmas, and pastels correlate with Spring, black and orange are colors that immediately make us think of Halloween. Yes, there are other colors seen during the Halloween holiday, such as purple and green, but black and orange are a major symbol of this celebration.

The origin of wearing the color black for the Harvest season has roots in the Celtic tradition of Samhain. Bonfires and costumes were worn to ward off malevolent spirits, but black was donned by those attending these bonfires–a sign of mourning to honor their late relatives. Orange made its way into the mix later: a color representative of the changing leaves and hollowed-out, carved gourds we call jack-o’-lanterns. 

Today, these colors have evolved and are seen in modern celebrations, decorations, and seasonal clothing!

Many Halloween traditions are enjoyed today by people of all ages, and it’s fun to consider when and how these traditions came about, as well as how they have changed over time. There are many more traditions and superstitions during fall and the Halloween holiday to explore and learn about, but these are some of the best known and the more we learn about their place in history and culture, the more we can understand why they are still symbols of Halloween today.

 

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