October 31st. The dark, mysterious night is dotted with orange jack-o-lanterns shimmering in windows and on doorsteps. Silhouettes of black cats poise on window panes, and skeletons "rattle" on door frames. Wispy webs border corners in haunted mansions. Witches and goblins mingle with ballerinas and football players as they make their way from door to door collecting Snickers and Hershey bars and other candy treats, while tired parents hover in the background.
It must be Halloween.
Halloween is an annual fun-filled celebration for us, but it didn't start out that way. The history of Halloween dates back 2000 years to the superstitious Scottish Celts, who lived in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Their new year began on November 1st, so October 31st was their New Year's Eve.
The Celts believed that on this night, ghosts and goblins and witches came to earth and wandered through the villages and countryside trying to return to the homes where they formerly lived. Because the Celts were frightened – even terrified – they tried to blend in with the spirits by dressing up in ghoulish costumes so they would be taken for fellow spirits. The frightened villagers also placed gifts of fruit and nuts on their doorsteps to appease the spirits to prevent them from entering.
When the Romans conquered the Celts, some Roman and Celtic traditions were combined. For Romans, November 1st was an important holy day called All Hallows Day (or All Saints Day). Eventually, October 31st became All Hallows E'en (evening), which is known to us as Halloween.
The tradition of "trick-or-treating" probably dates back to the early All Souls' Day parades in England, during which the poor begged for food and families gave them pastries called "soul cakes." In return for the cakes, the poor promised to pray for the families' dead relatives. The practice was called "going a-souling," and was eventually taken up by the children, who went from house to house in their own neighborhoods and were given ale, food and money.
An American Holiday
In the 19th century, as people immigrated from Europe to America, they brought a varied assortment of Halloween customs. As the customs meshed, a distinctly American version began to emerge. The first celebrations were public events held to celebrate the harvest. Neighbors shared stories of the dead, told fortunes, danced and sang. These celebrations also included plenty of mischief.
At the turn of the century, Halloween became more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. Parties for adults and children became the norm, and they focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes. Between 1920 and 1950, the tradition of trick-or-treating was revived.
Animals That Go Bump in the Night!
As witchcraft flourished, October 31st was believed to be a more potent day for spells and predictions than any other day. Superstition gave way to several symbols of Halloween that were associated with witches. Cats. You rarely see a witch without a black cat. The Halloween black cat is always in a fear-provoking position, with back arched, fur on end and eyes glittering. For thousands of years, they have been regarded as mysterious creatures with supernatural powers and were associated with witches and death. It was believed that witches could change into cats; in fact, they could make that change nine times. Some people believed that cats were the spirits of the dead. The cat's pupils – narrow slits in the daytime, but luminous globes at night – linked him to the moon and emphasized his ability to see into the future.
Witches were believed to have familiars, which were nothing more than magical helpers. They ran errands, brought messages, and aided in worship. Familiars usually assumed the form of animals, and cats, toads, owls, mice and dogs were the most common. Because of this, some animals have become associated with Halloween just because of their association with witches. Over the years, several animals have crept into our holiday spirit (accompanied by the eerie howl of the werewolf).
Spiders. Who likes spiders? Raise your hand. The spider and its web represents dark, scary places haunted by ghosties and goblins. Spiders were tiny enough to hide in a witch's cloak and whisper instructions in her ear. Some people believed that to dream of a spider meant betrayal, to see one in the morning was bad luck, and to kill one summoned rain.
Bats. These creatures of the night have gotten a bad rap; they are associated with vampires and the walking dead all because of their cousins, the vampire bats. Bats are nocturnal and mysterious and just the name vampire bat conjures spooky images of Count Dracula and other eerie creatures of the night that suck blood from their victims and turn into vampires themselves. In reality, the vampire bat is the only one of 900 bat species that likes blood – about two tablespoons a day. Lucky for us, they prefer the blood of birds and cows to that of humans, but even when biting the cow, bats head for the ankles and not the neck. Then it licks – not sucks – the blood from the wound.
Toads. The toad was believed to be the favorite of witches. They had horns like the devil, and witches dressed them in velvet, decorated them with bells, and encouraged them to dance. If anyone injured or killed a toad, they were in great danger.
Hares and rabbits. Beware of scary bunnies? I don't think so. Rabbits are associated with magic – we've all seen rabbits being pulled out of hats – but once it was believed that witches traveled in the shape of hares and that they were a natural ally of witches. They were swift and agile and were capable of standing on their hind legs like a person. It was believed that a hare that crossed a person's path would bring bad luck.
Not to Worry
We've come a long way since those long-ago days of fright and superstition. We no longer fear black cats and spiders; the lone cry of the wolf is usually playing off a CD; and the odds of meeting a witch or a ghost are nil. So if you hear your doorbell ring, have the bowl of treats at hand, and open the door with confidence. It won't be anyone you should be frightened of.
Or will it?