What originally started as a pagan ritual is today a light hearted tradition. Kids are dressing up in adorable costumes and go door to door for trick-or-treat. Adults are enjoying Halloween parties outdoing each other in scary costumes. And all over there are parades, haunted houses, and spooky hayrides for the entire family. But what most people don’t know is Halloween’s dark side. What you are about to read will both, shock and amuse you.
Halloween’s dark side begins with a pagan tradition
Souls of the dead returning home during one night of the year, and that they must be appeased has ancient pagan origins. It is a tradition in many cultures throughout the world.
In many of those traditions Halloween lasts up to three days. Although, they call it the Festival of the Dead. It begins at the end of October and ends at the beginning of November. Many ancient cultures honored their ancestors during this time when the harvest season ended and the dark winter days began. It is said that this is also the time when the boundaries between the spirit world and the world of the living is thinning. Which enables spirits to cross into our world and become active. Although Halloween’s origin includes many ancient cultures, it is the Celtic festival of Samhain, that is mostly credited for it.
During Samhain, it is not only the spirits that cross over, but also the fairies. Their powers are still active in people’s minds even though they were later replaced by religious beliefs. To make sure that both people and livestock are safe throughout the winter, offerings of some of the crops as well as foods and drinks are made to spirits and fairies. Even extra dinner plates are set on the tables to show hospitality.
After the offerings, the festivities with games and more rituals begin. The rituals usually include bonfires for divination. They represent the sun as a symbol of growth and renewal. It is also said that the flames, ashes, and smoke from the fires protect and have cleansing power. To protect homes and fields from the dead winter, people light torches from the bonfire and carry them around homes and fields from east to west. In the same direction as the sun rises and sets.
The pagan Festival of the dead receives its Christian name
The name Halloween comes from the Christian “All Hallow’s Eve.” It is the evening before the Christian holy days of All Hallows’ Day aka All Saints’ or Hallowmas, and All Souls’ Day. The name for all three days together is Allhallowtide. Christians celebrate this time to honor the saints and pray for the souls who are still on their way to heaven.
Originally, Pope Boniface IV christianized the pagan temple in Rome to then become “St Mary and all martyrs”. This happened on the same date as Lemuria, an ancient Roman festival of the dead, and the celebration of all the saints in Edessa in the time of Ephrem on May 13, 609. But later, in 835, Pope Gregory IV officially switched the date of All Hallows’ Day to November 1. Which happens to be the same date as Samhain.
Halloween’s dark side of costumes and trick-or-treat
The tradition of wearing costumes and going out for trick-or-treat has its origin in both, paganism and christianity. As mentioned earlier, the souls of the dead and also fairies can cross into our world on Halloween. Once here they are up to no good, because their reasons for crossing often involves vengeance on the living. In order to hide their identities and protect themselves from vengeful souls and fairies, people dressed in various costumes and masks. These costumes often resembled corpses from different levels of society. In ancient times, people wore animal skins and skulls in order to connect with the spirits.
When Allhallowtide became Holy Days of Obligation in 12th century Europe, the tradition of the ringing of church bells and also criers in the streets during All Hallow’s eve. It was to remind all Christians to remember the poor souls. This led to the custom of souling which started in the 15th century. In souling, people baked soul cakes and children from poor families went door to door to collect the cakes. In exchange they offered prayers for the souls of dead friends and relatives. Of course if they did not receive any soul cake, the consequences could be visits from angry souls. Speaking of soul cakes, surprise your guests with these freaky Halloween party foods and drinks.
Halloween’s dark side of Jack O’Lantern
We have the Irish to thank for Halloween’s Jack O’Lantern. Its origin begins with the story of Stingy Jack who was a miserable, old drunk. He took played tricks on just about everyone, including the Devil himself. One day, he encountered the Devil and tricked him to climb up an apple tree. Once the Devil was up the tree, Stingy Jack quickly placed crosses around the trunk, thus trapping the Devil on the tree. In order to get Jack to release him from the tree the Devil had to promise Jack not to ever take his soul after he died.
Years later, the drinking caught up with Jack and he died. When he arrived at the pearly gates to Heaven, Saint Peter told him that because he led such a miserable and worthless life he was not allowed to enter. So Jack went down to the entrance of Hell and begged the Devil to let him in. But the Devil had to keep his promise to never take Jack’s soul after he died.
Stingy Jack and his Jack O’lantern
With this Jack’s fate was sealed. With nowhere to go he became trapped in the Netherworld. Since the world between Heaven and Hell is a very dark place, the Devil tossed Jack an ember from the flames of Hell to use as a light. Not knowing how else to carry it, Stingy Jack carved out a turnip that was still in his pocket, and placed the ember inside the turnip. Ever since, Stingy Jack wanders about without a resting place, lighting his way with his “Jack O’Lantern”.
The original Jack O’Lanterns used to be turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes and beets. The light inside them to ward off evil spirits and to keep Stingy Jack away. When a wave of Irish immigrants came to America in the 1800s they substituted the original veggies with Pumpkins since they are bigger and easier to carve out. To get some great ideas check out this creative pumpkin art.
Halloween’s dark side causes adoption bans
During the medieval times, black cats were considered bad luck and associated with witchcraft. People believed that witches could reincarnate into black cats. They also believed that the Devil gifted black cats to witches to act as their servants.
In 1232, Pope Gregory IX, declared that cats were evil and associated with the devil and witchcraft. Which prompted the mass killings of cats and sometimes their owners over the next 100 years.
Due to the effort to rid the world of evil by trying to wipe out all cats, the rat population exploded. Consequently leading to the outbreak of the bubonic plaque, which was carried and spread by the rats. This resulted in the deaths of approx. one third of the European human population.
In the United States, the superstition surrounding black cats started with the Puritan Pilgrims in the Plymouth colony. Associating the cats with witchcraft, they actively persecuted black cats. It became a practice to burn black cats on Shrove Tuesday to protect the home from fire. By the time the witch hunts ended, black cats were forever pictured next to witches. Now, decorators use them as a Halloween symbol, with or without witches, on their front steps to spook trick-or-treaters.
Many animal shelters have banned adoptions of black cats around the time of Halloween. They fear that some people might harm or sacrifice the cats during rituals. Others might just use them as living decorations and abandon them once Halloween is over. For less macabre Halloween ideas, check out these genius and affordable DIY Halloween decorations.
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