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Traditions of Halloween

Posted by admin On October - 31 - 2000

Traditions of Halloween

Witches, Black Cats and Hats

The original witches were not universally bad, but the magical beliefs of the original Druids became associated with demonic possession and evil as Christianity spread.  Evil witches were said to gain their powers through consorting with the Devil, and they often had demonic “familiars” who appeared to ordinary people as black cats.  Witches were said to ride their brooms to Halloween get-togethers to dance with the Devil and gain his powers. Shakespeare’s three witches from Macbeth wore black robes and peaked witches hats, and put “eye of newt” into their boiling cauldron.  African and Voodoo tales and legends of witchcraft and black cats brought an even spookier tradition to Halloween witches.


Traditional Halloween masks date back to the early days of Samhain, when people would wear masks to fool the evil spirits who were out on that night.  “Mummers” were people who would go door to door on All Hallows Eve and other holidays, dressed in costumes.  They would perform songs or tell stories in return for food and drink.  Today’s Halloween costumes incorporate the traditional images of ghosts, skeletons, demons and angels, as well as every other type of imaginary creature and celebrity imaginable.  For many years, costumes were home-made, and children usually wore them while “trick or treating.”  The first commercial Halloween costumes were made in the 1930’s, and have grown over the years into the $multi-million industry they are today.

Trick or Treating

“Trick or Treat” dates back to the traditional “mummers” who went door to door performing for food and drink on All Hallows Eve, and also to children and adults who went “a souling” to perform for “soul cakes with songs about departed souls.  Early American Halloween stories and pictures show “tricks” being performed by mischievous children, sometimes in costumes, but the practice of giving a treat to avoid having a trick played probably began during pioneer and frontier times in America.


Putting a lantern in the window to light the way for the spirits of the dead is one of the original Halloween traditions. Today’s carved pumpkin Jack O’Lantern was inspired by the Irish legend of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack tried to cheat both the Devil and God, and wasn’t allowed in Heaven or Hell after he died.  Instead, the Devil gave him a piece of burning coal and put it in a turnip and set Jack loose to wander the earth forever.  People began carving turnips with scary faces meant to frighten Jack and other evil spirits away.  When Irish immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins were easier to carve and made better lanterns for candles than turnips did, and the Jack O’Lantern of today was born.


During the American pioneer days, frontier housewives began giving candy to the children “trick or treating” from door to door in order to prevent their house from being targeted by a “trick.”  The most classic Halloween candy is candy corn, which was first manufactured in the 1880’s.  The longest-running candy corn manufacturer is the Herman Goelitz Company, which started making the sweet, chewy treat in 1898 and sells millions of pounds today.

Apples and Bobbing for Apples

Apples for Halloween date back to ancient Roman times and the Goddess Pomona, the goddess of fertility, fruit and trees, whose symbol was an apple.  The Roman festival of Feralia, which celebrated and honored the spirits of the dead, was combined with Pomona’s harvest festival and incorporated into the Celtic holiday of Samhain when the Romans conquered Britain.  Because the Goddess Pomona was a fertility goddess, ancient Celtic people noticed that when an apple is sliced in half, its seeds form a pentagram, which they saw as a positive symbol of magic.  Samhain celebrations began to include a game where young unmarried men and women would try to bite into an apple floating in water.  The first person to get a bite of the apple would be the next bride or groom.