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Jack O'Lantern dolls

By Renata Nathania

The tradition of Jack 'O' Lanterns, trick-or-treating, and dressing up in extreme costumes has come down the ages of the Celtic celebrations of Samhain, a popular harvest festival celebrated in the Scottish Highlands, Ireland, parts of Wales, tribes of Germany, and Brittany. The Celtic people indulged in dark and mystical rituals which have inspired today's Halloween celebrations.

Celtic Ireland had a practice of bonfire rituals, usually conducted by druids, who indulged in the black arts. Druids were the educated class among the Celts, held priestly offices, and were regarded as "knowers of the Oak tree". Ancient German Highland tribes had a strange ritual where men gathered under oak trees, and performed sacrifices to their patron god or goddess, by slitting their wrists, and drinking the blood collected in a chalice. This was after the main priest used this chalice to apparently know the wishes of the patron deity, which often resided in the oak tree.

Celtic Druids performing a ritual at the stonehenge Image source: wikimediawikimedia

During Samhain, fires were lit all day long and could only be re-lit by the druids. During this period, cattle were selected for breeding or slaughter; pagan rituals of using bonfires to commune with spirits, and an act of releasing evil spirits to the other world, and sending the good spirits to their final resting place, was performed. These pagan practices lasted the entire night. Typically, Samhain was the festival that was observed to end the old and begin the new. It was originally considered a New Year in Celtic culture.

Each year in the West, pumpkins are carved in the shape of human head with various expressions and placed at the threshold of houses. This tradition originated from an Irish myth, where a man named 'Stingy' Jack toyed with the Devil, trying to fool him, and eventually was not allowed to enter Heaven. In order to escape the Devil, he carved a pumpkin, put a light in it, and roamed the earth. Jack 'O' Lanterns are used to ward off actual evil spirits in the spirit of celebrating a festival dedicated to the dark arts.

Jack O'Lanterns are placed outside houses and thresholds; Image source: wikimediawikimedia

The Celtic Samhain merged with the Roman tradition of the Autumn festival dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees, especially apples. It was believed that the fruits were made ripe from the spittle of the fairies, who were sent to monitor the autumn harvest. A game has also developed from this ritual, where an apple is passed around a circle of unmarried women, and each apple represents a certain male. The woman who bites into the apple sent around by a certain man, is said to have found her suitable husband. Sometimes, fruits were left out in bushes and shrubs to appease these travelling spirits, and today, apples and pumpkins are left outside the house.

Halloween Costumes are usually gothic styled; Image source: wikimediawikimedia

Trick-or-treating and dressing up as gothic characters also has ancient Celtic roots. The druids, while performing their incantations to send various spirits to different places, often wore masks of disfigured faces to confuse the spirits, and prevent them from possessing human beings. They also used to wail, and make strange noises to direct these spirits to their final destinations and away from themselves. The concept of a 'banshee,' a wailing spirit that lives in houses and cries when a resident is about to die, originated from this ritual. It is believed that the cry heralds the druidic tradition, and warns humans of spirits lingering in the household. Ancient witches who used to look like humans, during the trick-or-treating journey, would put poisoned sweets, or chocolates which had glass powder in them, into the children's baskets. The children who did not receive these sweets would be treated, while the others were tricked. The children who consumed the poisoned goods, were taken off by these witches to perform rituals concerning the dead. The modern practice has mellowed down to simply being given candy or a replacement, which is a trick. It is not as dangerous as it used to be, but perhaps in the Celtic regions, this practice still secretly thrives.

Mass of people dressed as spirits who go around making wailing noises at night Image source: wikimediawikimedia

Halloween is observed on October 31, which is traditionally the beginning of winter. When Christianity first came to Ireland and Scotland, the pagan practices surrounding the festival were looked down upon by the Church. Pope Boniface of the 7th century, wanted to do away with this observance, and declared Halloween to be a festival where Saints were honored. It was initially called 'Hallows' Day", but later turned into Halloween. The idea of indulging in these pagan rituals did not stop being popularized, and so October 31 remains Halloween, and the day of observing the acts of saints shifted to November 1, which is celebrated as All Saints' Day.

Halloween traditions have now spread to all parts of the globe, and even oriental countries who do not hold such beliefs have made space to celebrate this rather dark festival. While druidic rituals do not exist across the world, each culture believes in their own version of spirits and ghosts, and Halloween allows them to hold on these ideas. The kind of costumes and specific customs have changed according to geographical and cultural convenience, but the heart of this festival remains unchanged.

Keywords: Halloween, Gothic, Ritual, Mystic



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