Halloween is a holiday shrouded in darkness, linked to the supernatural and inspiring fear. So it’s not surprising that there are many misconceptions about its traditions, origins and meaning. Here are some of the most common.
• Beware of razor blades in candy apples.
Police in Denver this year are warning parents about the prospect of pot-infused candy. This is just the latest iteration of a perennial concern. A 2011 Harris Interactive poll found that 24 percent of parents were fearful that their children might be poisoned by tampered-with or spoiled treats. In fact there is little, if any, evidence that this has ever happened.
• Halloween is a quintessentially American holiday.
The origins of the holiday can be traced back to a pre-Christian Celtic festival called Samhain. For the Celts, Nov. 1 marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the new year. They believed that the souls of the dead mingled among the living at that time.
Later, after St. Patrick and other missionaries converted Ireland to Christianity, Nov. 1 became All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows Day, and the eve became known as Halloween. It featured feasts, blessing of the hearth and lighting of candles and bonfires to welcome wandering souls. Irish immigrants in the 19th century brought many Halloween customs to the United States.
• Halloween is satanic.
The devil wasn’t part of Samhain. The Celts made sacrifices in honor of the dead, and those sacrifices often took the form of burned crops. Contrary to some accounts, there was no human sacrifice.
It was only when the Catholic Church tried to supplant Samhain and other native holidays that the church branded practitioners of rival religions as devil worshippers. Beliefs in the wandering dead persisted, but the supernatural beings honored by the Celts became associated with evil.
• Trick-or-treating has long been a central feature of Halloween.
Wearing costumes and demanding treats can be traced to the Celtic period and the first few centuries of the Christian era, when food and drink were left out to placate wandering souls, fairies, witches and demons. As the centuries wore on, people began dressing like these creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. By the Middle Ages, masked solicitations were associated with All Souls’ Day and other holidays in countries influenced by Catholicism.
But, according to folklorist Tad Tuleja, trick-or-treating did not descend directly from those traditions. By his account, the practice as we know it in the United States is largely a product of an effort by local governments and businesses in the 1930s and ’40s to promote an alternative to pranking and the rowdier aspects of Halloween.
• You can’t have Halloween without pumpkins.
In Ireland and Scotland, jack-o’-lanterns have traditionally been made out of large turnips. European settlers first encountered the pumpkin in the New World. Because it is already hollow, it is much easier to carve. So pumpkins replaced turnips in America.
Why have a jack-o’-lantern at all? The symbolism goes back to a European folk tale. A blacksmith named Jack scoffed at St. Peter and tricked the devil, and so was denied entrance to heaven and hell. He scooped up a coal from the embers of hell in a turnip and used it to light his way as he wandered endlessly between the two worlds.
So the jack-o’-lantern symbolizes a marginal creature, dangerous but fascinating, like so much else in this tradition of Halloween.
Jack Santino is a folklorist at Bowling Green State University.