Ghouls and witches, bats and black cats, tricks, treats and pumpkins are all things we associate with Halloween. All Hallows’ Eve is inherently a festival of the dead, but how much do you know about where these tales actually come from?
Before the gates to the underworld open on October 31, experts at language app Babbel (www.babbel.com), share the truth behind some of the ‘spooky’ traditions that take place at Halloween.
The tradition of Halloween comes from Sahmain, an ancient pagan festival celebrated by Celtic people. It first took place in Britain, Ireland and North Western France. It was believed that as the days became darker and harvest came to an end, the boundary between our world and that of the dead became thinner and could be crossed by the spirits. This is also where the tradition of dressing up in costumes comes from – people dressed up to disguise themselves from the walking dead who might wish to cause them harm.
Sahmainophobia is an intense and persistent fear of Halloween. A diagnosable, clinical condition, it can cause a variety of symptoms, such as anxiety, hyperventilation, sweating and stress. The phobia is related to all-things Halloween and can present itself with related phobias, such as phasmophobia (the fear of ghosts), wiccaphobia (the fear of witchcraft) and nyctophobia (the fear of darkness).
The word ‘witch’ comes from the Old English wicce, meaning ‘wise woman’. At one time, these women were highly respected. According to popular belief, witches held meetings, known as ‘sabbaths’ on Halloween night.
Trick-or-treating began in areas of the UK and Ireland. Poor people went house-to-house ‘souling’ – so called because they asked for small breads called ‘soul cakes’ in exchange for prayer, or for performing a ‘mummer’s’ play. Popular across the UK, souling often coincided with a religious festival – Plough Monday in North Yorkshire, All Souls Day in Cheshire, and so on. Eventually, souling moved away from being a necessity to a fun activity to do on Halloween, but the ‘soul cakes’ remain a firm tradition in parts of the UK.
The first jack-o’-lanterns were actually made from turnips, while the name originally comes from English folklore. The term refers to either ‘foolish fire’, a phenomenon that occurs over swamps and peat bogs, of an illusion of a flickering light, or after a man called Jack O’Lanterns. The belief is that he was a man who tricked the devil and was forbidden entrance to heaven or hell, leaving him wandering the earth, using his lantern to confuse people and lead them away from their path.
Black cats, spiders and bats are all Halloween symbols because of their historical ties to Wiccans. These animals were thought to be the companions of witches in the Middle Ages, and are often associated with bad luck. The association between bats and Halloween goes even deeper, as during Samhain, a ritual fire was built which was meant to drive away bats (as well as insects).