The Legends and Lore Behind Halloween
Many Americans celebrate Halloween every year and participate in the traditions that go along with this spooky holiday.
Jack o’ lanterns, trick-or-treating, and bonfires have become a huge role in what society considers to be Halloween. Many Halloween customs have legends and folklore behind them that have long since been forgotten.
Trick-or-treating was taken from the early Christian tradition called “souling.” Early Christians would go from village to village asking for treats and in exchange they would say a small prayer for the donor’s dead relatives. Even a small prayer from a stranger was considered a way of helping the souls of the deceased pass to heaven.
People today dress up in costumes for Halloween. This tradition started as a self-preservation tactic. It was believed the souls of the people who died that year would come back to Earth in search of a body to inhabit. In order to protect themselves, people would dress up as goblins, ghosts, and witches to blend in with the wandering spirits.
Even if the spirits found a living soul, its body would seem unappealing and the living would have a better chance of survival. Over the years, people have stopped believing in the spirits wandering the earth one last time, but the act of dressing up once a year remains part of today’s culture.
After a night of partying, many people often crowd around a bonfire to wind down and stay warm. This tradition originated from the Gaelic holiday, Samhain. Around this time of year, the Gaels would celebrate what they believed was the New Year. On November first they would light large fires and burn rejected crops and animals as offering to the gods.
The Celts would light the fire in order to ward off evil spirits because they believed the dead wandered the Earth once a year. After the fire was extinguished, the ashes would be scattered over fields to protect the crops from any evil spirits.
The most popular myth of all involves the Jack o’ Lantern. According to Celtic legend, there was a young farmer named Jack who was a drunk and a notorious trickster in the village. One day, the devil came to take Jack’s soul.
Jack was able to convince the devil to turn into a coin so he could buy one last drink at the bar. The devil did not know that Jack had a little cross in his wallet, making it impossible for the devil to escape.
Jack refused to allow the devil to leave until he was promised that his soul would be spared from hell. Eventually, the devil agreed to Jack’s terms and was freed.
After Jack died, he wasn’t allowed in heaven because of his many sins he had committed in life. When he went to hell, the devil kept his promise and refused to take his soul. The devil felt pity and gave Jack a small coal so he could light his way. Jack happened to have a turnip in his pocket and placed the burning coal inside the turnip, thus creating the first Jack o’ lantern.
When the Celts came to America, they replaced the turnip with the larger, more common pumpkin to carve their lanterns.
Halloween traditions that are practiced today are based on older customs with spiritual meaning, although the original meaning is somewhat lost today.