Once again it’s the time of the year when all things weird and scary come out to play at night. Yes, that's right. Halloween will soon be upon us again.
Here are my top 10 spookily interesting and fun facts about Halloween. Get your pumpkin knives at the ready!
#1 Halloween’s Horrifying History
Halloween goes back at least 2,000 years – and probably much longer – to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which is pronounced a bit like “sah-wain” or maybe “sah-win,” depending on which expert you trust.
Samhain was a big festival at the end of the harvest season, around October 31 every year. The festival celebrated the end of the harvest and the beginning of the Celtic new year.
The name comes from the Old Irish words “sam” (summer) and “fuin” (end). (The word “sam” is thought to share a root with the English word “summer.”) Linguists say Samhain meant “summer’s end.” Today, Samhain is the Gaelic name of the month of November.
As a curious coincidence, the word “Samhain” is spelled (but not pronounced) something like “Samana,” which was one of the aspects of Yama, the lord of death, in the early Vedic tradition that gave rise to Hinduism and Buddhism. Although the Samhain-Samana connection has led some to speculate that the Gaelic term somehow refers to the Vedic god of death, most modern philologists say it’s just a coincidence. There is no historic connection linking the two words.
#2 What Kind of a Word is Halloween Anyway?
In 609 CE the Catholic church introduced a holy day called All Saints’ (or All Hallows’) day. All Saints’ day was originally celebrated on May 13. The church changed the date to November 1 in 835.
Churchgoers of the Middle Ages were less likely to use months and days to keep track of the calendar than we are. Instead, they referred to dates by name. November 1 was All Hallows’ day and October 31 became known as All Hallows’ eve. It is a small step from “Hallows’ eve” to “Halloween.”
#3 Ghouls From the Grave
According to Old Irish tradition, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead were blurred at the end of the harvest season as many food plants died over the winter…but only after giving up their fruit to provide life for people. The pagan festival of Samhain was devoted to the concept of life in death.
Over time, the idea of a permeable barrier between the living and the dead gave rise to scary stories of ghosts and devils who crossed into our world one night per year. The dead who came to our world were thought to wreak all manner of otherworldly chaos.
Superstitious people began to dress in masks and costumes to hide their identities from these supernatural forces. And so the Halloween costume was born.
#4 Guising for Fun and Profit
The tradition of dressing up and begging from door to door goes back to the Middle Ages and the practice of “guising” or “mumming.”
People – adults and families, not just children – used to visit neighbors in costume, reciting poems, telling stories and singing songs in exchange for food or gifts. Guising gradually came to include pranks played against households whose offerings were judged insufficiently generous.
Tradition dictated that rewarding guisers was a way of ensuring good health over the winter and a bountiful harvest in the coming year.
#5 How Guising Became Trick-or-Treating
Trick-or-treating is a fairly modern invention.
Until the twentieth century, Halloween costumes and pranks were confined to Ireland. The tradition spread first to England and then, sometime in the 1930s, to America. The term “trick-or-treating” didn’t make its first appearance in an American newspaper until 1939.
In some states, Halloween’s Old Irish roots are still apparent. Trick-or-treaters in Ohio, Iowa, and Massachusetts still refer to Halloween as Beggars’ Night – a clear reference to guising.
#6 Just How Big a Celebration Is Halloween Nowadays?
That’s easy. It’s huge.
As a commercial holiday, Halloween plays second fiddle only to Christmas.
This year alone, 120 million Americans will dress up and spend around 6 billion dollars on Halloween.
Talk about scary!
#7 The Truth Behind Those Ghastly Grinning Pumpkins
The jack-o'-lantern dates back to Ireland. It was originally a handheld lantern carved out of a turnip. The name refers to strange, otherworldly lights that sometimes appeared in Irish peat bogs. Sometimes such a light was called a “will o’ the wisp” and sometimes a “jack o’ lantern.”
It wasn’t until Halloween crossed to the New World that the turnip was replaced with the larger and more practical pumpkin, which is native to Central America.
American farmers grow more than 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins each year – that’s twice the weight of the Empire State Building.
No one is quite sure how many jack o’ lanterns are carved each year. In October 2013, enthusiasts in Keene, New Hampshire put 30,581 lit jack-o’-lanterns on simultaneous display, capturing the world record from Boston.
#8 How Jack Tricked the Devil
No one really knows the full history of the jack-o’-lantern. That has not prevented generations of storytellers from making up tales, however. Stories about the jack-o’-lantern are among the best and wildest of Halloween tales.
Some say that Jack and his brother Will (of will-o’-the-wisp fame) were evil spirits who lured the innocent into bogs and fens where they were lost.
Others trace the jack-o’-lantern to a cunning Irish rogue called Stingy Jack.
In one story, Jack is a blacksmith who outwits the devil by chasing him up an apple tree and carving a cross in the bark so he can’t climb down.
In another he is a thief on the run who gets caught by the devil. He escapes death by tricking the devil into taking the shape of a gold coin, which Jack captures in his wallet.
Jack saves his soul from hell in both stories, but he isn’t exactly qualified for heaven either. So he is condemned to wander the earth for all time. When Jack asks how he will find his way in the world, the angry devil tosses him an ember from the flames of hell. Jack hollows out a turnip to carry the ember, turning it into a lamp to light his way. Today we turn pumpkins into lanterns in memory of Stingy Jack.
#9 The Odd Tradition of Bobbing for Apples
The tradition of bobbing for apples is hundreds of years old. The practice seems to have nothing to do with Halloween, however, except for the fact that apples are plentiful in late October.
Bobbing for apples is related to fortune telling, romance and love, not ghosts and ghouls.
That is not to say that apples are not part of the Halloween tradition. In some countries, Halloween is known as Snap Apple night in honor of a game that is still played after more than 200 years.
In Snap Apple, an apple is hung on a string. Players, sometimes blindfolded, try to get a bite of the apple. In some variations, players compete to get custody of a coin that is tucked into the apple. In others, a lit candle is attached to the rod the apple is tied to, or even stuck into one side of the apple, adding an element of danger to the game.
In either case, the winner of the game is traditionally identified as the next to marry. In some variations, each apple is associated with a different young woman, so the game incorporates an element of matchmaking.
#10 Halloween and the Day of the Dead
In Mexico, Halloween is known as Día de los Muertos, which means Day of the Dead. The holiday is now celebrated not only in Mexico but throughout much of Latin America and in many American cities with substantial Hispanic populations.
According to the Día de los Muertos tradition, All Souls’ Day – November 2 – is observed with a three-day celebration that starts on the evening of October 31. The holiday honors the dead, who are said to return to their earthly homes on Halloween. Some families make altars in their houses and decorate them with flowers, candy and drinks.
Historians trace the roots of the tradition to an Aztec festival that honored Mictecacihuatl, a goddess who ruled over the afterlife with her husband, the king of the underworld. Mictecacihuatl was thought to watch over the bones of the dead and to ensure that the living honored the deceased properly during festivals throughout the year. Mictecacihuatl is depicted as a skeleton with a gaping jaw that allows her to swallow the stars during the day.
It was only natural that Mexicans would combine their forebears’ celebration of death with Halloween when it arrived in the New World, just as the Irish combined Samhain with All Hallows’ Eve.
Trick or Treat!
I hope these strange and unlikely questions about Halloween make your observance of this odd holiday more fun. If nothing else, you’ll be able to amaze and enlighten fellow revelers at any Halloween party you happen to attend this year.