As we ease into the month of October, here’s a closer look at the most popular Halloween traditions around the world and the fascinating stories that lie behind each of them — from Celtic myths to pagan rituals.
1. Black cats
For centuries, black cats have been shrouded in mystery. Considered an emblem of bad luck, their less-than-desirable reputation dates back to the Dark Ages, where witch-hunts were commonplace. Those accused of witchcraft, along with their pet cats, were said to be accomplices of the devil. Other legends had it that Satan himself morphed into a cat when appearing to witches. Today, black cats make popular Halloween decorations and are even considered good luck in countries like Ireland, Scotland, and England.
While carving Jack-O’-Lanterns offer hours of fun for the whole family, this Fall tradition lie in sinister roots. In Celtic folklore, a drunken farmer named Jack tricked the devil, resulting in him being turned away from both the gates of heaven and hell after his death. While wandering in the purgatory, he crafted a lantern out of a turnip and a burning lump of coal — using the lantern to guide his lost soul. Since turnips were hard to come by in these days, pumpkins were a ready substitute.
“Double, double, toil and trouble,” is a line made popular by Shakespeare’s Macbeth and hints at the power of a cauldron. At Halloween parties, it’s not hard to spot cauldrons of all sizes, serving as multipurpose candy holders. What you may not know is that the pagan Celts believed that after death, all souls went into the crone’s cauldron to await reincarnation. Now, the life-giving cauldron has been replaced by the image of a bubbling, ominous brew.
4. Trick-Or-Treating In Costumes
Widely regarded as the most iconic part of Halloween, trick-or-treating in costumes is a tradition loved by adults and children alike. In the past, it was believed that during Samhain (a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half”), the veil between our world and the spirit world was at its thinnest. As such, superstition has it that visiting ghosts could disguise themselves in human form to ask for food or money. In Celtic myth, dressing up as a ghoul could possibly fool the evil spirits into thinking you are one of them.
5. Halloween Colors
The traditional Halloween colors of orange and black are by no mere coincidence. In fact, they were derived from the pagan celebration of the autumn season and the harvest. Orange symbolizes the color of the crops and the changing hue of the leaves, while black marks the metaphorical death of summer. In modern day, the likes of purple and yellow have also been inducted into the Halloween family.
6. Candy Apples
Among the slew of Halloween treats that pop up during this time of the year, candy apples rank among the most popular. In the early days of treat-or-treating in North America, the sugary fruit on a stick was handed out to little ones who came knocking on one’s door. Nowadays, the snack comes in variations that can run the gamut from being coated in caramel to being dripped in chocolate or swirled in nuts. Others say that the fusion of Celtic and Roman traditions led to this candy apple tradition, which honors Pamona, the goddess of fruit trees.
7. Bobbing For Apples
Apart from being a tasty Halloween snack, apples were also considered to be a sacred fruit that could predict the future. Bobbing for apples was one of the first traditional games played on Halloween night, where it was believed that the first person to pluck an apple from the water-filled bucket without using their hands would be the first to marry. Another myth has it that putting a bobbed apple under one’s pillow would lead one to dream about their future partner.
Like cats, bats were said to be associated closely with witches and an equally ominous sign. People believed that if a bat was seen flying around one’s house three times, a death could be soon expected. And if a bat flew into your house on Halloween’s day, it was sign that your abode was haunted.
The simplest way to embrace the Halloween spirit? Pop on a pointy black hat and warty fake nose a la the witch. This stereotypical character stems from a pagan goddess known as “the crone,” which was honored during Samhain. Unlike the menacing creature depicted in popular culture today, the crone was once known as the “Earth mother” and symbolized wisdom and the changing seasons.
10. Candy Corn
Before all things pumpkin spice dominated the supermarket aisles during fall season, there was candy corn. Synonymous with Halloween, the candy was invented in the late 1880s and mass-produced in the early 1990s. Originally, the process of making candy corn was cumbersome, as each vat of colored syrup had to be hand poured into specially shaped molds. Meant to resemble a corn kernel, the candy remains a huge part of the festivities, despite mixed reviews on its taste.