Tag Archives: samhain

Halloween Pumpkins – Where do they come from?

Image via Wikipedia.

Every October, thousands and thousands of pumpkins are carved into scary shapes and lit up from the inside, but why do we even do that? Here, we take a look at how this tradition emerged and became so popular across the world.

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The origins of Halloween

The origins of Halloween are actually connected to pagan beliefs, and don’t originate in Christian rituals, as many believe. Truth be told, today it’s kind of a hybrid celebration, incorporating both Celtic and Christian traditions.

Halloween was previously called “All Hallows’ Eve”, which already starts to give an indication about its origin. All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, with pagan roots in the Gaelic festival Samhain. Samhain was a festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, which is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Burning scarecrow at a modern Samhain celebration. Image credits: Sylvan Smith.

When the Christians expanded to Western Europe, they came across these Gaelic populations and wanted to convert them. However, they realized that if they tried to replace their celebrations, it’d be really difficult to convert them, so they just mixed two things together and created a hybrid celebration. The pagan harvest fest was blended in with the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. Originally, no meat was eaten for All Hallows’ Eve, but today, abstinence from meat is not generally required, although eating certain vegetarian foods for this vigil day is still common, especially apples, colcannon, cider, potato pancakes, and soul cakes.

Which leads us to our question: why do we carve pumpkins?

Jack O’Lantern

Carved pumpkins (or in some cases, turnips), are called jack o’lantern. We don’t know for sure where this practice comes from, but it seems to come from an old Irish legend, the legend of Stingy Jack.

However, carving vegetables has been a common practice in many parts of the world; gourds are among the earliest domesticated plants, and there are some indications that they were carved as early as 10.000 years ago. Gourds were used to carve lanterns by the Maori over 700 years ago, and the Maori word for a gourd is actually used to describe a lampshade. However, today’s Halloween carvings likely occur from the British and Irish regions. So, what about Stingy Jack?

According to the story, Stingy Jack once asked the Devil to have a drink with him; weird, huh? Wait, it gets way better. True to his name, he didn’t then want to pay for his drink, which shows just how much nerve he had. He convinced the Devil to turn into a coin so that he could pay for the drinks, but when the Devil did turn into a coin, Jack decided to keep the money in his pocket, next to a silver cross – which prevented the Devil from turning back to his original shape. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and leave his soul alone.

Still, it gets even stranger.

Jack met up with the Devil and somehow managed to convince him to climb up a tree to pick up some fruit. He then sculpted a cross on the tree’s bark to prevent him from getting down, and forcing a promise that he will be left alone for ten more years, and his soul will not be claimed. Why didn’t he just ask him to be left alone for good, I don’t know. Jack was a strange guy.

But not long after that, Jack’s soul passed away. God didn’t really want the like of Jack in Heaven, so he sent him to hell. But the Devil was still upset by Jack’s tricks and he had to keep his word and not claim his soul. So instead, he sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. He was called Jack of the Lantern, or for short – Jack o’lantern.

The people thought that by making their own lanterns to scare Jack off. In Ireland and Scotland, they used turnips or potatoes and placed them by the window. In England, large beets were used. The British and Irish that moved to the US took this tradition with them, and discovered that the pumpkin, a species native to America, works perfectly for that, so they used pumpkins instead.

Carved Jack. Image in Wiki Commons.

There are other similar (or different stories), but in all the stories, there’s someone that makes a deal with the Devil to have his soul free.

Today’s Pumpkins

Today, carving pumpkins is as much an industry as it is a tradition. 1.5 billion pounds (680,000,000 kilograms or 680,000 tonnes) of pumpkins are produced each year are grown each year! Interestingly, 90 percent of the pumpkins grown in the United States are raised within a 90-mile radius of Peoria, Illinois, and even more interestingly, most pumpkins are processed into canned pumpkin and canned pie mix – not for carving. There are pumpkin carving competitions, and the scary faces traditionally made on pumpkins are often replaced by other creative designs. The world’s largest jack-o’-lantern was carved from the then-world’s-largest pumpkin on October 31, 2005 in Northern Cambria, Pennsylvania; it weighed 1,469 lb (666.33 kg) on October 1, 2005.

So, prepare your pumpkins and your carving knife, because we couldn’t really imagine Halloween without pumpkins, could we? It’s not about making the best ones, it’s about enjoying a century-old tradition; and keeping Jack o’lantern away.

The myths and folklore behind Halloween’s most popular characters

The spooky Halloween is almost upon us, and the monsters are rubbing their hands, waiting to come out and create chaos and mayhem. But even though kids costume themselves and all, a lot has changed since the early days of Samhaim, the pagan festival from which Halloween originated. In ancient Ireland fairies roamed the streets, playing malicious tricks on everybody who dared to walk at night, witches concocted magic evil potions all around the world, and werewolves came out howling from the forests. But what is the truth behind these myths and legends ? We’ve gathered a bunch of myths and stories, and I’m gonna let you decide what the truth is; if you have the courage, that is…

Vampires

The belief in vampires is as old as man itself, and throughout the years, many cultures have displayed a profound belief in such mythological creatures that feed on the life essence (usually blood) of other beings. Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Romans, even the Greeks – they all believed that when the sun comes down, white skinned phantomatical creatures with long teeth and a thirst for blood come out of their coffins, just waiting to suck the very life out of as much people as possible. Even in the English language, the word “vampire” exists since 1734, but it wasn’t until Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula that the archetypal sophisticated vampire was established.

Dracula, the movie

Dracula was believed to come from Transylvania, a region in Romania; he was a member of an ancient order, called the Order of the Dragon, and ruled Wallachia, a neighboring region as Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Devil). It is still not certain exactly why he is believed to be Dracula, but he was extremely cruel and he did have a thirst for blood – maybe in the literal way too.

Brad Pitt, in one of the most popular modern vampire stories

Other cultures have other vampires, but what’s interesting is that most rituals are actually the same. For example, identifying the coffin of a vampire in a graveyard required walking a virgin stallion through the graveyard; the horse was supposed to balk at the vampire’s tomb. Mirrors are also a good way to discover and ward vampires, because it is commonly believed that they have no reflection. Also, the methods of protection against vampires are pretty much the same: garlic is always good to have around. In some countries, during Halloween, huge piles of garlic are put in every window to prevent unwanted… guests. Staking is the best way to get rid of vampires, that we know of, but it’s also the hardest; vampires are known to be fast and extremely agile, so it’s best to do it during daytime, when they sleep.

Their favorite hang around places are graveyards and churches, but they can get around pretty much everywhere, and they can blend in perfectly when the sun comes down. You’d best keep an eye out for people with white skin and big teeth. There isn’t a special connection between vampires and Halloween, but if you go to the right places, you are bound to see at least a few.

Werewolves

Werewolves are nasty creatures; they were once humans, but now, they periodically or permanently change into antropomorphic animals, most commonly wolves. Lycantropes, as they are also called, become this way after being bitten by another werewolf, or after being placed under a powerful curse. They have the raw power and speed of the wolf, but they also have the intelligence and cunning of the man, which makes them some of the most powerful and feared monsters in the whole world.

In folklore, one of the most common signs of a werewolf is the joining of the eyebrows above the nose – this is the first sign of lycantropy. They were mentioned numerous times in European and African myths, especially in the huge forests in Russia. They were so feared, that people started to begin they wore the taint of the Devil himself, as writes Richard Verstegan (Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, 1628):

[werewolves] are certayne sorcerers, who having annoynted their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, does not only unto the view of others seem as wolves, but to their own thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they wear the said girdle. And they do dispose themselves as very wolves, in worrying and killing, and most of humane creatures.

The ancient Greeks wrote some fascinating ideas about werewolves. For example, History’s father, Herodotus wrote that the Neuri, a tribe he places to the north-east of Scythia, were all transformed into wolves once every year for several days, and then changed back to their former shape – a shocking resemblance to other myths. Virgil, one of the most famous Roman poets wrote in a similar fashion. Other reputed people shared stories of werewolves; one of the most shocking was featured in the Satyricon:

“When I look for my buddy I see he’d stripped and piled his clothes by the roadside…He pees in a circle round his clothes and then, just like that, turns into a wolf!…after he turned into a wolf he started howling and then ran off into the woods.”

Werewolves are vulnerable to almost nothing. The only thing known to cause serious damage to them is silver. A silver blade, or a silver bullet will be deadly, but some reports claim that the mere touch of the metal will cause severe burns to the werewolf.

Werewolves like to hand around forests and farms, they cry out like wolves and are drawn by fullmoon. However, Halloween seems to draw them out more than a fullmoon, and at times, they even come out in packs, striking their victims without giving them any hope whatsoever.

Witches

Basically speaking, witches are people who practice witchcraft – and they love Halloween more than any other day of the year. Witchcraft was given a really awkward reputation during the dark ages, when Christianity ruled Europe, and when they ruled witchcraft as a criminal offense that should be punished by death. Speaking of it, there was quite a special way in which it was usually determined if somebody (usually women) was a witch. They tied her to some logs and/or rocks, and if she floated, she was a witch and had to die. If she sunk, and died, she wasn’t a witch, and… well, that’s that.

Witchcraft was common absolutely everywhere in the world. You’ve got shamans, voodoo people, warlocks and even necromancers, in one variation or another on every continent in every corner of the world. There are in fact so many types of alleged witches that it is practically impossible to catalogue them all; there are even stories (though not very many) of good witches, that use spells and potions to benefit others. Most however, are malitious at least, or evil at worst.

Halloween and witches are connected at every level. At first, Samhain (the celebration that originated Halloween) marks the end of the third and final harvest, but also the time when the Crone goddess mourns the death of the old God. It is the time when all the dead souls return to her cauldron of life and death, awaiting to be reincarnated. It is these souls that make the witches’ powers tenfold in the night of Halloween, so this is why they have very special plans for tonight. The Witches greatest Sabbath is scheduled for Halloween night, and even though you may not see witches that often, that’s because they like to stay hidden, waiting and plotting in the dark, waiting for the day they will finally be able to take their rightful place in the world.

Fairies

“Fairy” has different etymologies and different meanings in different languages. Despite today’s common belief that fairies are good natured and helpful (a belief largely promoted by Peter Pan), folklore tells us a somewhat different story. Usually, they are some sort of demons or undead beings, while in other stories they are elementals or air spirits.

Still, fairies are not evil, but rather malitious. A fairy will never try to throw the world in darkness, but may steal a baby every now and then, but usually they just known for their mischief and malice, playing everyday planks on people. Cold iron is the most common protection against fairies, which could come quite in handy, because in most legends they are not the small benevolent winged beings you might know, but would be rather a large, glowing figure.

As with many other mythological creatures, they are drawn in large numbers on Halloween, so usual light pranks may turn into a big ordeal on Samhain. There is however another belief, that fairies gather on Halloween to protect people from other malevolent spirites, such as witches or goblins. Either way, their intent and wishes are not yet clear, and maybe this Halloween will show us more clearly what fairies are like.

Zombies

Yeah, we know zombies. They may be slow, but they’re hard to stop, and they’re nasty. Halloween draws out more zombies than ever. It’s not quite clear if they come out because of all the spiritual energy of the day, of they are somehow summoned by witches or other spellcasters, but one thing’s for sure: zombies are the centerpiece of Halloween.

There aren’t many old legends and folklore about zombies, except for Haitian and other cultures that practiced voodoo. There have been many studies regarding the phenomenon, including medical research, the most famous of which was conducted by Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, but zombies have gotten a lot of attention in modern culture, and this Halloween we’ll be definitely hearing a lot from them.

Demons

Demons are the top of the piramid when it comes to evil. They are at the core of every evil doing, and are responsible for every major plan concocted by supernatural creatures. Present in every mythology, as well as Christianity or Islamism, demons can rarely enter our plain of existence though.

However, Halloween is the time to be a demon. It is said that during this day, portals open that bound every plain of existance, so demons can enter freely in our world, given the right conditions. These conditions usually have to be fulfilled by lesser evils.

The legends and folklore about demons are so many you can’t fully characterize demons; some say they are fallen angels, some say they are evil powerful spirits, while others claim they are just energy, without a body of their own, waiting for one to possess. Either way, the word around the demon world is that they’re planning something big this Halloween, so best keep an eye out.

[These are just myths and folklore, tied together by figments of my immagination. Hope you had fun reading this post, I definitely did writing it. And have a happy bloody Halloween !]

A short history of Halloween

halloween pumpkinThe 2008 Halloween is almost here, and it seems to be the word on everybody’s lips this time of year. It’s celebrated mostly in America, but not so many people know about it’s origins, how it developed, and how it’s different from what it used to be many years ago. This is by no means an exhaustive resource, just a brief history of what was once called Samhain.

Throughout the Celtic territory, the druids celebrated four big holy days, Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane & Lughnasadh. They were referred to as the fire festivals, as for the celts fire was a symbol of dinivity, truth and beauty. Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the stocking of the supplies for the winter; it was the most important of all, and it probably marked the Celtic New Year. They lit up fires and frequently threw bones from the livestock in them, and they also used costumes or masks, to immitate the spirits or to placate them. Samhain was the beggining of the dark period of the year, the hard winter that was to come.

The name Halloween comes from All Hallows’ Even, as it’s the eve of the “All Hallows’ Day”, also known as the All Saints’ Day. It was a pagan celebration, but some popes tried to blend it with the Christian religion, and the result was that All Saints’ Day and Halloween were celebrated on the same day, despite the fact that they are now celebrated at the distance of a day. Today there are many symbols that surround Halloween, the most well known being of course the carved pumpkin, also called jack-o’-lantern. These lanterns have their origin in Europe, and they were at first carved from turnips. The name also comes from a European legend. A gambling and hard drinking farmer, calld Stingy Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree, and then locked him there by carving a cross on the tree. The devil then tricked him to wander the night only with what light he had with him, which was of course carved from a turnip. Today, it’s much easier to carv in pumpkins.

Halloween is also very popular in Europe, especially in Ireland, where it originated from. Samhain is the time when the dead visit the living, and large bonfires are lit in order to prevent evil spirits from doing anything… evil. Just as in the US, here people dress up in ghosts, spirits, monsters etc. This started as it was a bay to blend in with the spirits, but then it just turned into trick or treating.