Features Muse

The Heritage Of Halloween

Chloe Lam delves into Halloween’s history, and explores the origins of the traditional practices of the festival

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Image Credit: Universal Studios

Trick-or-treat! Look beyond the little ghosts, witches and zombies on your doorstep: this is essentially just a plea for sweets. Have you ever wondered why we participate in all these eccentric traditions at Halloween? Its history dates back to an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain – long before the commercialisation of the occasion we now associate with sweets, parties and black and orange décor. Let’s explore some of these mysterious traditions that we follow each year
without ever really understanding the meanings behind them.

One of my personal favourites. After all, what other occasion permits young children to knock on the
doors of strangers and ask for free sweets? Of course, the many people who turn off their living room lights in an attempt to make the house look empty may disagree with me. But let’s have a look at the traditions behind this practice. In Scotland and Ireland, children used to offer the people who answered their doors ‘tricks’ in return for ‘treats’ - a sort of exchange, if you will. The name attributed to this version of trick-or-treating was called ‘guising’. Tricks may have included dancing, singing a song, or telling a joke. In America, the origins of trick-or- treating are slightly different. ‘Belsnickling’ is the term attributed to the practices prevalent in German-American communities. On Halloween, children would knock on doors in their costumes and ask the homeowners if they could decipher what they were dressed up as. If no one made a correct guess, then the children would be given treats as a prize.

Apple Bobbing
A game that inevitably features at most Halloween fairs and farms – somewhat unhygienic but highly entertaining for its spectators. Unlike trick -or-treating, this activity stems from something unrelated to what we now call Halloween – apple bobbing was originally part of a courting ritual. There are several fascinating variations of this game. One method of playing was to name each apple in the tub after a potential lover – the player would then try to bite into the apple of the person they were in love with and wanted to woo. If they were successful the first time, then the relationship was meant to be. However, the more tries they needed to bite into the right apple, the less likely it was that the relationship would work out. There is also another, slightly darker story behind apple bobbing. The occasion of Samhain coincided with the date of Halloween, hence the link between the two. On this day, humans would be offered up to the gods. It is said that the Druids in the British Isles would make people in the villages partake in one of two unappealing options: apple bobbing or burning to death if they did not participate. However, there was a twist: the water containing the apples was boiling hot. Clearly, there was not a particularly pleasant outcome either way. This dark history formed the basis of what has now transformed into an entertaining and lighthearted game.

This is another tradition that ties in with the festival of Samhain. During Samhain, spirits would return to Earth and haunt the people living there. In order to disguise themselves from the spirits and avoid being haunted, the Celts would put costumes on so that the spirits did not recognise them as humans, and in- stead believed that they too were spirits. They also disguised themselves so that the spirits would not be able to single out the people whom they had made enemies of while they were living. It is interesting to consider how Halloween costumes today serve a vastly different purpose – the ghoulish masks lining our supermarket aisles allow people to stand out on Halloween and be seen.

Black Cats
These felines have been around for a very long time. However, their history as superstitious creatures (which do still colour many people’s perceptions of them today) have led to their being associated with Halloween. One particular group in history – the Puritan pilgrims of Plymouth Colony – were strict Protestants, and were therefore very much opposed to witches and witchcraft. They were suspicious of black cats because of their supposed link to witches – some of them believed that black cats were actually just another form that witches could take on. This perpetuated hysteria about black cats and it is why we still associate them with Halloween today. Sweet Treats If you think this is mostly a marketing ploy – you’re correct. In many past Halloweens, trick-or-treaters were frequently given fruit or nuts as their ‘treats’ – items that can still be found in the majority of households today. So why has there been a movement towards garishly packaged sweets to mark the occasion? With the marketing campaigns for these sweet treats cropping up several weeks before 31 October, the only explanation is that Halloween has become a very much commercialised occasion. Indeed, in the 1950s, businesses began capitalising on the trend of providing goods at the door, and mass-produced sweet treats specially made for the occasion. So no, sadly those multipacks of spooky shaped treats do not have an exciting history.

Carving Pumpkins
Pumpkin carving: an activity usually delegated to the adults, carefully carving along the children’s haphazard, sharpie-marked outlines. The practice of pumpkin carving originates from an Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack. It is said that one night, Jack and the Devil went out together for drinks. When the time came to pay the bill, Jack managed to persuade the Devil to change into a coin to pay for the drink. Jack then placed the coin (i.e. the Devil) into his pocket. But inside this pocket was a silver cross, which had the ability to stop the Devil from morphing back into his natural form. Eventually, Jack let the Devil back out of the coin – but only on one condition: he was not allowed to attack Jack for at least ten years. As promised, the Devil came back for Jack ten years later – but Jack tricked the Devil again ,making him climb up a tree to reach an imaginary apple. As the Devil climbed, Jack engraved the tree with a cross, trapping the Devil. He struck another bargain – as long as the Devil did not send him to Hell, Jack would free him. The Devil agreed. When Jack died, however, he could not go to Hell, andHeaven rejected him too. This meant that he was forced to roam the Earth. He was given only a piece of coal by the Devil, which he lit and placed in a turnip to illuminate his path. It is therefore said that the people of Ireland soon began carving turnips to create lanterns, in order to ward off Jack’s wandering spirit. Compare this to our modern-day practice of lighting carved pumpkins outside our houses to attract trick-or-treaters, rather than to turn them away.

Halloween in York
How does our humble city of York sit in relation to all these Halloween traditions? Well, York Dungeons are hosting a spooky show this Halloween to demonstrate York’s place in the history of Halloween. It will feature famous historical figures, including Guy Fawkes, Dick Turpin and Isabella Billington – a convicted witch. All the way back in 1679, Isabella was hanged for witchcraft at York’s very own Knavesmire – a place where many public hangings used to take place. This came after it was revealed that she had murdered her mother as part of a ritual dedicated to Satan. The show at York Dungeons will run from 5 October to 3 November, so get your hands on some tickets while you still can, and experience the spookiness of Halloween, mingled with fascinating history, even after the occasion is over. So in a few days’ time, when you see the masses of ghosts, witches and various other ghouls traipsing the streets under the lamplights, perhaps you’ll take a moment to think about why they’re dressed that way. Or maybe you’ll consider the traditions that have led to the gaggle of children at your door, holding their buckets out expectantly. What an absolute treat (or trick).

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