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10 Halloween Traditions and Their Real Origins

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October is a transition month. For farmers, this is a time to harvest and store crops for the winter. For the rest of us, pumpkin lattes and other warm, cozy, fire-side drinks start to pop up at local coffee shops. On the last day of October, kids and adults alike dress up in crazy costumes and flood the streets. Some go trick or treating while others celebrate by lighting things on fire. So, where did all these Halloween traditions come from? Keep reading below to find out!

1. Dressing Up in Scary Costumes

Halloween traditions started with the Celtics who celebrated their New Year’s Day on November 1st. October 31st was called Samhain. On this day the dearly departed (aka: spirits of the dead) came back to roam the earth. People believed that costumes scared off evil spirits. They go back to the Druids, who wore costumes around ritual bonfires.

2. Bonfires and Candles

Druids were Celtic priests that lit huge bonfires to sacrifice crops and animals. Back then, people lived at the whim of nature and the seasons. These rituals were their way of trying to appease the gods and spirits. It was also thought that during Samhain, Druids were able to foresee the future. Bonfires were part of the fortune telling process. Today, some people still build bonfires, but the fire has mostly been scaled down to lighting candles. 

3. Trick or Treating

The Celtics, in their costumes, would put on performances in exchange for food. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, Christian ideas were mixed with some of the Celtic rituals. Trick or treating originated in different ways depending on the country you were in. In some places, poor people would go from door to door to ask for money or food in exchange for prayers. In other countries, people would dress up and go from door to door, exchanging performances for food. 

4. Candy

When European immigrants moved to America, they brought Halloween traditions with them. Children would go from door to door and people would give them homemade cookies, treats, and even money. Eventually, candy companies caught wind of this and they used trick or treating as a way to market their products. Candy had the advantage of being an affordable, convenient way to give a treat to large groups of kids.

5. Witches

In an attempt by the Romans to erase some Celtic traditions, Samhain was replaced by All Hallows Eve and November 1st became All Saints Day. People believed that witches would convene a party with the devil on April 20th and October 31st, All Hallows Eve. In America, both European immigrants and Native Americans believed in witches. Mix this in with the idea of black magic from African slaves and witches became a staple of Halloween.

6. Black Cats

Supposedly, black cats were the auguries of evil. It probably didn’t help that accused witches also owned cats, usually black ones. This led people to believe that black cats helped witch’s channel dark magic. It made sense that when witches became a symbol of Halloween, the black cat followed.

7. Bats

Bats inadvertently made their way into the Halloween traditions because they made their way into the Druids’ bonfire celebrations. Why? Because bonfires attracted insects and bats eat insects. 

8. Using Orange and Black colors

The use of orange and black colors for Halloween came from the Celtics as well. Remember that Samhain was a day when the dead came back for a visit. Black represented death and the impending darkness of winter that was about to come. Orange, on the other hand, represented autumn and the colors associated with dying leaves. Today, we associate the color orange with pumpkins, but these gourds are actually native to North America, not Europe.

9. Jack O’ Lanterns

The tradition of lighting up a gourd from inside came from the Irish story of Stingy Jack. Jack somehow managed to coerce the Devil into not letting him go to Hell when he died. Unfortunately, Heaven didn’t want him either. So now, Stingy Jack hangs out on earth, using a hollowed out turnip and a piece of lit coal inside as a flashlight. Poor guy. European settlers used pumpkins instead of turnips when they migrated to North America, probably because pumpkins were abundant… and orange!

10. Bobbing for Apples

Bobbing for apples was an old British Halloween tradition. In it there was no tub of water though. People attached an apple to a spinning, horizontal plank of wood. Oh, and there was also a lit candle on the other end. The goal was to take a bite out of the apple. However, if you missed, the lit candle would whack you on the head and cover you in hot wax. Today, bobbing for apples isn’t quite as dangerous. The only real drawback is the tub of spit-filled water into which you have to dunk your head.

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