Here’s a fun little post to give you some background on popular Halloween symbols.
Jack o’lanterns started as a tradition in the British Isles. They are associated with will-o’-the-wisps, strange lights that, although caused by natural phenomena, were thought to lead travelers astray and into dangerous places. There is also a folktale of a bad man known as Stingy Jack who stopped himself from going to hell by tricking the devil. However, as he was not allowed into heaven either, he is forced to wander the earth with only a turnip containing an ember from Hell to light his way. To make jack o’lanterns, European children would carve out turnips and put candles in them. After the arrival of Scottish and Irish immigrants, Americans used pumpkins instead which are native to the Americas.
Witches, with their abilities to practice magic and the dark arts, were inevitably going to be linked to Halloween. From the late medieval period to the early 18th century, people who were suspected of being witches were persecuted. Women who were accused of witchcraft would most likely have been considered healers and wise women in earlier times, but their lifestyles in later centuries caused suspicion and every day household items such as a broom and cauldron became associated with witches. By the 20th century, witches became icons of Halloween and they were no longer scorned as devil worshippers.
Ghosts and Skeletons
The connection with ghosts, skeletons, and Halloween should be obvious from what I have already written. The spirits of the dead were believed to come back to earth on Samhain and the Lemuria as mentioned in my previous post “The Spooktacular History of Halloween.” Likewise, the Christian feasts of All Saints’ and Souls’ Days continued the association with death in the praying for souls. Similarly, the skeleton imagery abounds on the Mexican Day of the Dead. Combine these old customs with ghost stories, real life encounters with the departed, and the rise of spiritualism and you have Halloween symbols for all time.
Bats and Vampires
Another symbol of Halloween, bats, emerged during ancient Celtic times as they could be seen at night flying around the bonfires which attracted insects. Also, as bats are nocturnal, it is only natural they would be associated with death and the macabre. Bats became associated with vampires as certain species of bats feed of blood. This association became popularized through novels, especially Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which vampires can turn into bats. And vampires themselves are Halloween symbols because they are undead, nocturnal, murderous fiends.
The lore surrounding black cats goes back to ancient times. In Scotland and Ireland, the Celts believed in the Cat Sith, a large, domineering black cat that was actually a fairy creature that could curse the family cows with dried up milk unless saucers of milk were left out for it on Samhain. During the medieval period, black cats were thought to be witches’ familiars and became associated with devilish practices. Some people still believe a black cat crossing your path is bad luck, but all the black cats I’ve met have been total sweethearts.
Apples have had special meaning since ancient times. For the Celts they meant fruitfulness and the Romans considered them a symbol of the harvest and of their goddess of abundance and orchards, Pomona. When the Romans invaded Celtic lands, they brought their symbolism of the apple with them. And in turn, apples have been associated with autumn ever since. Bobbing for apples became a Halloween game by the 20th century. The game also has several forms of divination involving the apples attached to it.
Happy Halloween everyone!
- The Haunted History of Halloween, documentary from The History Channel
- Creating Your Vintage Hallowe’en: The Folklore, Traditions, and some Crafty Makes by Marion Paull.
- What do Bats have to do with Halloween Anyway? by Erika Smith