Halloween is almost upon us. In the US, families will decorate their gardens and turn their homes into haunted houses. In the UK, lots of people will turn off the lights and pretend to be out when little kids come to call.
Don’t get me start on the plethora of ‘sexy’ costumes we’ll see this weekend. Seriously, does anyone really need to see a ‘sexy’ Crayola crayon?
Anyway. We’ve already looked at the use of jack o’ lanterns at Halloween. But what are the roots of other popular Halloween customs, like bobbing for apples and dressing up?
Halloween, or Samhain to give it the proper name, is the end of the Celtic year. The veil between the worlds of the living and dead is thinnest at this point. The Celts thought demons sneaked through the weaker veil to roam the earth. Dressing as a demon meant that if you encountered one, they thought you were one of them.
The Catholic Church turned this tradition into ‘All Hallows Eve’ and ‘All Saints Day’. The dressing up expanded to include saints and angels.
In the Middle Ages, the practice became known as ‘guising’. The poor dressed up and went begging door to door. They’d say prayers for the deceased to speed their passage through Purgatory, in exchange for food. Soul cakes became popular ‘gifts’ for the poor.
If you’re interested in Purgatory, and its place in history, then I highly recommend The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead by Carl Watkins (aff link).
In the 19th century, children dressed up to beg for fruit or money. They might play instruments, tell jokes, or perform. Scottish and Irish migrants took guising to the United States.
Guising reemerged as trick-or-treating in the 1920s. Today I Found Out note that the earliest reference to ‘trick or treat’ dates to 1927. Guising didn’t involve playing pranks on people but trick-or-treating did.
The US exported trick-or-treating back to the UK in the 1980s but in 2006, the New York Times reported on the British hatred of trick-or-treating. We’d much rather make effigies of a man who failed and set fire to them.
Bobbing for Apples
Bobbing for apples was always a favourite around Halloween when I was in primary school but I’m not sure how many people still do it. The premise is simple; fill a bucket or a wide bowl with water and add apples. Guests fish the apples out using only their teeth.
The Romans brought the tradition to Britain. For them, the apple represented Pomona, the goddess of plenty. Unmarried people tried to bite the apples in water. The first to be successful would marry next.
Young girls put their apples under their pillows to dream of their future husbands.
It’s not quite related, but you may know other Halloween customs related to apples. One of them involves peeling an apple in an unbroken strip. Toss the peel over your shoulder and if it forms a letter, that’s the initial of your true love.
I’ve come across two versions of the dumb supper. In one, unmarried girls laid a place at the table and held a silent dinner party. According to the legend, they’d see a vision of the man they’d marry at the empty place.
The other is the one associated with Samhain. As Halloween customs go, it’s perhaps not the best known. Families with deceased loved ones laid a place and held their dinner in silence. Families with more than one loss laid a single place and burned candles to represent those lost.
Ideally, the dumb supper is held only by candlelight. Their dearly departed could visit and join in on Halloween night. After the supper, the families burned notes containing messages for the dead in the candle flames. They left the uneaten food outside for wildlife.
Many countries have Halloween customs that involve welcoming home ancestors. In Austria, some families leave out bread and water with a lit lamp to guide souls home. Belgian families light candles to commemorate dead relatives. In Germany, people hide their knives to avoid injuring spirits that return.
Day of the Dead
Día de los Muertos is a huge, 3-day festival in countries like Mexico. It starts on October 31 and ends on November 2. As it’s a separate entity and not really part of Halloween, I didn’t want to include it in an article on Halloween customs. But given the number of people dressing in Day of the Dead costumes, I decided I would.
People often build altars in their home, displaying photos of the dearly departed and leaving out their favourite food. Candles help light the way home. It derives from indigenous Mexican traditions around honouring ancestors and celebrating the dead. There’s more about its history here, particularly about the sugar skull tradition.
Families also tidy graves before decorating them with flowers or streamers. Then they enjoy a picnic in the cemetery, swapping stories of the deceased. It’s an exuberant affair, full of food and drink. It’s a testament to the cycle of life, rather than mourning the dead.
Some of the iconography, such as sugar skulls and skeletons, has recently spread to the UK. I do wonder how many of the people dressed as calaveras actually know the history behind their costume but then I’m grumpy. If you’re interested in skeleton folklore, I’ve got a post about it on FolkloreThursday.com.
Which of these Halloween customs do you follow?
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