Ever wonder about the origins of trick-or-treating, or why folklore has witches riding brooms under a harvest moon? Or why this time of year pranksters like to put on masks and roam the night? Or why we bob for apples and carve Jack ‘O Lanterns?
It might surprise you to learn that Halloween’s roots are actually quite green. For the pre-Christian cultures of Northern Europe, it was about the earth, Mother Nature. The gourds, the ghosts and goblins, the slinky black cat that we use as motifs and decorations today all harken back to an era when the harvest was literally a do-or-die time and there was no predicting a yield - and when nature was more of a spooky mystery to mankind than a nurturing, reassuring force. Who knew if the coming year would see a bumper corn crop or if the unseen forces of nature were going to make the near future a…nightmare? !
In the very earliest celebrations, which happened at the end of October/early November, people tried to cajole Mother Nature by putting out offerings of just-harvested fruits and vegetables (enter the apple and pumpkin as Halloween symbols). This time of year also was associated with death and dying, as the ancient people noted the earth’s changing cycles, and they believed that during this brief phase all manner of spirits prowled the planet. They lit bonfires and, later, candles to ward them away, and many folklorists think this is how the Jack’ O Lantern and Halloween luminarias entered the modern-day picture.
- Green Halloween Tip: Planning a ghoulish shindig? Do it old style, with bobbing for apples (using individual tubs or bowls for each individual), or have a pumpkin-carving contest but remove the gourd’s guts beforehand and make a pie or soup with it. (Try this pumpkin soup from Simply Recipes.) Serve that at the party!
So many of these traditions are tied to a period when man and nature were much closer partners, says Dorothy Noyes, Associate Professor of English, Comparative Studies, and Anthropology at Ohio State University.
The ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sa’ween), a “day of the dead” held on what is Nov. 1 on our modern calendar, marked the first day of winter and the end of fall. It is the earliest precursor to today’s Halloween, being one of four major, earth-related holidays that divided the Celtic year. It was the end and the beginning of a cycle, which in itself has great meaning to ancient and mystical societies, says Noyes.
“In Northern Europe, just in terms of the kind of climate we have, you have extreme day and night. It’s the period of the year where the sun goes away and the trees fall and the landscape dies and death is visibly out there – and it traditionally is a time of anxiety and of scarcity…because we’re going through those months where we have to hoard our food and watch ourselves carefully!
“So it’s natural enough that you are thinking about death and the end of things,” she explains, “and if you’re thinking about the end of things and the pressures of the dead (dead fields, dead … bodies …boohooowwaaah) are placed on the living. So if you think about trick or treating, for instance, think about these people who are banging on your doors in the middle of the night and demanding that you feed them. That’s from a time when people might have had a bad harvest and needed food. It’s serious stuff!”
As it evolved, some dressed in disguises to make themselves more menacing, and more effective in their demands.
The trickster emerged from earth-related rituals, as well. Then, as now, when the harvest concluded each year, smart folk gathered and stored their crops (cats helped keep rodents away, so the cat was a hallowed creature of olde), swept away the dead growth (enter the broom as symbol) and fallen leaves, cleaned their fields, brought their animals in from the hills and hunkered down for a long scary winter. They believed this was a time to appease their gods – and some even thought they could outsmart or ignore nature.
Bad idea. As we know, it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.