Haunted Hills & Hollows: Halloween traditions
Can you feel it?
The warmth of the fire crackling in the fireplace as shadows and light play across the wooden floor.
Can you smell it?
The tangy, sweet scent of wood smoke.
The flickering glow of the oil lamp along the wall, and the sound of the rain on the tin roof. All of this intertwined with whispered tales of wandering ghosts and restless spirits.
‘Tis All Hallows Eve in the mountains.
Halloween. What does the word itself mean? The name is actually a shortened version of All Hallows’ Eve. Hallow is an Old English word for a holy person, and All Hallows’ Day is simply another name for All Saints’ Day, the day Catholics commemorate all the saints. At some point, people began referring to All Hallows’ Eve as Hallowe’en and then simply Halloween. While it takes its name from All Saints Day, modern Halloween is actually a combination of several different traditions. Many of the things we do on Halloween predate Christianity entirely.
The Scots-Irish who first settled Appalachia brought their heritage with them when they settled in the mountains. Most of the traditions of Halloween date back to Samhain (sow-en), the ancient Celtic New Year. Samhain, which translates to “end of summer,” occurred around the end of October. This is when the weather started to get cold and darkness fell earlier and people generally feared the arrival of winter. Celtic tradition held that these times when seasons change had magical properties. Samhain marked the biggest turning point of the year — a change in the weather as well as a shift in everybody’s lives. The ancient Celts believed this magical time opened up a sort of connection to the dead. They believed that as the sun fell and the cloak of darkness came, the dead would wander about.
Dressing up to scare away the dead!
Historians say the Celts would dress up in ghoulish outfits and parade away from their homes to lead the wandering spirits away. It was thought that if you dressed up in outlandish attire complete with made up masks, ghosts could not recognize you or cause harm. This is the start of our dressing up in Halloween costumes.
Soul Cakes & Candy
One popular All Souls’ Day practice was to make soul cakes, which were simple bread desserts. In a custom called souling, children would go door-to-door begging for the soul cakes, much like trick-or-treaters nowadays. For every cake a child collected, they would have to say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave them the cake. These prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heavenhopefully!
In Northern Ireland, it was customary for Druids to perform ritualistic ceremonies and make sacrifices to pacify their gods. The Celts would bring wood and start their Samhain bonfire or fire festival, on the hilltop. Often, they would throw the bones of slaughtered cattle into the flames. The word “bonfire” is said to be derived from such “bone fires”. Bonfires and sacrifices guaranteed that the sun would burn brightly after a long, dreary winter. It is common to witness hundreds of traditional bonfires in Ireland every year on Halloween Night.
Jack lived in Ireland several hundred years ago and was known as a hateful trickster. On several occasions, he even tricked the Devil. He convinced the Devil to climb up a tree for some tasty apples, and then he cut crosses all around the bottom of the tree trunk so the devil couldn’t climb back down. The devil promised to leave Jack alone forever, if he would only let him out of the tree.
When Jack died, he was turned away from Heaven due to his life of sin and mischievousness. The Devil would not take Jack in Hell either. As Jack left the gates of Hell, the Devil threw him a hot burning ember to light the way in the darkness. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed out turnip, and wandered off into the afterlife. According to the Irish legend, you might see Jack’s spirit on All Hallows’ Eve, still carrying his turnip lantern through the darkness. When the legend came to America with the Irish immigration in the mid-19th century, pumpkins were more readily found and the legend of the Jack O’Lantern was born!
Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. I remember as a child that we would play many of these games either at our Halloween party at school or at a friend’s house. Bobbing for apples was popular. A traditional Scottish form of divining one’s future spouse is to carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one’s shoulder. The peel is believed to land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse’s name. Who needs eHarmony dating service? Another more morbid game needed a mirror. Unmarried women were told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, the face of their future husband would appear in the mirror. However, if they were destined to die before marriage, a skull would appear. Quaint game, eh?
In the United States, Halloween lags just behind New Year’s Eve and the Super Bowl in total number of parties, and it’s second only to Christmas in total consumer dollars spent. Halloween continues to be extremely popular with kids of all ages; 85 to 90 percent of U.S. children go trick-or-treating or engage in other Halloween festivities every year, and many adults join in on the fun. Popular or not, I look forward to this odd holiday with as much enthusiasm as I do for Christmas. No matter what you plan to do on Oct. 31, may the Spirits be with you.