Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Origins of Halloween in America Part 2

Halloween in America is actually a relatively new holiday. It first became popular in the early 1900s. Scottish and Irish immigrants brought most of the Halloween traditions we observe today to America. 

Many of our Halloween traditions originally came across the sea with the Irish immigrants who were fleeing the 1846 Potato Famine. The tradition of carving pumpkins, jack-o'lanterns, is based in Irish folklore that was observed for centuries. While other traditions actually are modern additions, such as, candy corn.

Many Halloween traditions are based in harmful or at best silly superstitions. The black cat is one of these traditions. The black cat’s bad reputation dates back to the Dark Ages in Europe. When witch-hunts were commonplace in Europe, it was believed that elderly solitary women were witches. *

These supposed witches’ pet cats were said to be their “familiars” **, or demonic animals that had been given to them by the devil. Another Medieval myth stated that Satan turned himself into a cat when socializing with these witches. 

Hence black cats became synonymous with bad luck and mischief so it is considered bad luck for a black cat to cross your path. But this is not true in England, Scotland and Ireland they consider it good luck when a black cat crosses their path.

Bats are another Halloween tradition that is seeped in superstitions. Medieval folklore also described bats as being witches’ “familiars”.

 It is considered a very bad omen if you see a bat on Halloween. One superstition, states if you see a bat flying around a house three times it means someone in that home will soon die. Another myth states that if a bat flies into your house on Halloween, it is a sign your home is haunted. This was believed because it was felt a ghost let the bat in.

These superstitions hold no significance today. The black cat and bat as symbols for Halloween are much more based in fun today rather than in ignorant superstitions.***

In the 1920s and '30s the holiday became secular. In the 1950s community leaders around America decided to make Halloween a holiday aimed at children. The reason they did this was to cut down on vandalism—because of the tricks or pranks connected to the holiday. 

* Ancient Paganism always focused upon women. An example of this is when human sacrifice was still the practice, over 2000 years ago, it was “virgin women” who were sacrificed.

** A familiar is a spirit—usually an animal—who acts as an assistant to a witch.

*** After the Scottish and Irish brought their Halloween traditions to America this celebration went through several major changes. In the late 1800’s the holiday became more community centered. 

In The Origins of Halloween in America, Part 3 I share the story of Stingy Jack which started the tradition of Jack-o-Lanterns.

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