The Truth Behind Halloween's Most Iconic Symbols

by Jenna Maxwell

It’s autumn, and along with a distinct chill in the air, and leaves turning brilliant colors, the world turns its attention to Halloween, one of the oldest and most beloved of the fall holidays. There are certain things we always associate with Halloween--things like black cats, witches, and Jack-o-Lanterns--but, why? Have you ever wondered where these Halloween symbols came from?  Here are the legends and lore behind some of Halloween’s most traditional symbols.

Orange and Black    During the Halloween season, the world will be awash in the hues of bright orange and black.  Why orange and black?  Well, the holiday we know as Halloween has its origins in a few different ancient pagan harvest festivals, most predominantly the ancient Celtic celebration called Samhain.  Samhain marked the crossover period between the long days of the summer and the shorter days of the winter.  Orange has long been a color associated with the harvest, as this vibrant hue is most predominant during the autumn months.  Black is the color of nighttime, darkness, death, and sometimes, evil.  The superstitious folks living during those very ancient days believed fervently that during the festival of Samhain, the spirits of the deceased could return to walk the earth.  No wonder then that the color black also became a color associated with the celebration we know as Halloween.  Autumn and harvest, death and darkness, a Halloween color scheme was born and has been with us ever since. 

Halloween New ENgland Jack-o-lanterns adventure_SQ.g.jpgJack-o-Lanterns   At Halloween time, Jack-o-Lanterns are traditionally fashioned by carving pumpkins.  In the days of yore, the first such lanterns served a far more practical purpose than they do today.  During the festival of Samhain when all those spirits of the dead were thought to be roaming about, lanterns were carefully made from turnips and carried to help ward off any evil spirits that might have malevolent intentions.  Scary faces were cut into the turnip lanterns to make these luminaries appear even more daunting.  Immigrants to America brought the tradition of carving turnips with frightful faces with them when they migrated west.  Upon arrival, these immigrants discovered that turnips were not nearly as plentiful as pumpkins, so they began using the more readily available pumpkin to fashion their Halloween lanterns instead. 

As far as the name “Jack-o-Lantern” is concerned, there is an old tale that has been tossed around for generations.  As the story goes, there once was an old miser named Stingy Jack who was most known for his heavy drinking, as well as being a prankster and a cheapskate.  In a foolish deal made with the devil, Jack required the devil to promise he would never take his soul.  Upon Jack’s death, the devil was true to his word, and he did not take Jack into hell.  The problem was, after his death, heaven didn’t want Jack's soul either. Jack was thus eternally caught in limbo, banished to wander the earth with his lantern lit by an ember given to him by the devil himself, his soul belonging neither to heaven or hell.

300SQ_Vampire.pngBats and Vampires    To get to the root of how bats became associated with Halloween, once again you have to go way back into history.  During ancient pagan harvest festivals, it was common to make large bonfires as part of the festivities.  The light and heat of the fires would attract all manner of flying insects, which in turn, would attract bats.  Bonfires and bats thus became somewhat synonymous, as did Halloween and bats. 

The bat’s legendary connection to the more creepy and disturbing vampire likely stems from the title character in Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel, Dracula.  In the novel, Dracula can shape-shift from human form into that of a bat, forever connecting bats and vampires to Halloween.

 

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Witches and Black Cats    Early immigrants to the United States brought with them ancient stories and superstitions about witches and witchcraft.  Centuries ago, there was a bit of mass hysteria surrounding witches in general.  Executing women for supposedly practicing a type of black magic associated with demons and sorcery was not uncommon.  The truth is, there was likely far more witch frenzy than there ever was actual witchcraft--but this bewitching history lends itself to plenty of frightful legends, tales and spooky lore surrounding Halloween witches that have persisted for generations.  Most of the ancient supposed witches were just ordinary women--a far cry from the caricature of a Halloween witch that we recognize today, an older woman clad in black with a pointy hat, a hooked and warty nose and a cackle that could send shivers down your spine.

The inky and stealthy black cat is often closely associated with witches and ancient Halloween tradition. Thought to be witches “familiars,” these trusty feline sidekicks to the Halloween Witch are purported to be busily doing a witch’s evil bidding. 

Spiders    The spider has long had a bit of a sketchy reputation, and most of it is probably undeserved.  Just because the arachnid prefers to lurk in the dark where sticky webs are spun to trap prey, doesn’t mean they are evil, does it?  Well, to the people of yesteryear, the stealthy spider was often lumped into the same category as some of the other fateful Halloween creatures.  Spiders were bad luck, and if you saw one during All Hallows, that was surely the harbinger of imminent doom.  Because spiders prefer the dark, apparently it was easy to associate them with witches and witchcraft.  As time went by, a lighter version of this spider-induced fear mongering occurred, and at that point, it was thought that if you saw a spider on Halloween night, it was only a deceased loved one watching over you.  No matter what your feelings about spiders may be, you can bet that on during the Halloween season there will be plenty of faux spiders and spider webs hung about your neighborhood.  It’s enough to give anyone a bad case of the heebie jeebies! 

300SQ_Skeleton.pngSkeletons and Ghosts   Long before Halloween was even Halloween; the spirits of the dead were thought to be able to interface with the living at the end of the harvest season.  Yes, that means ghosts! The people that lived during these days long ago were very superstitious, and although they accepted the fact that these spirits may be coming to call upon them, they were also quite terrified at the idea of these mystical visitors.  They were mostly afraid of any evil spirits that may be amongst the dead and the destructive agenda they might have in mind.  Feasts and spreads of food were sometimes laid out to prepare for possible guests and the potentially paranormal events of this rather unearthly night.  Additionally, the locals would take necessary measures to keep any evil ghosts away, even resorting to dressing up to look a bit “dead” themselves.

The skeleton has long been an iconic symbol of death and the fragility of the mortal existence.  It’s no wonder then that with all the annual focus on ghosts and spirits that skulls and skeletons have also become a favorite Halloween symbol.

SQ 300_SabreenaCOstume_SQ.pngCostumes and Masks    As part of the process of warding off evil spirits that may be haunting the local villages on All Hallows Eve, rural villagers would frequently wear masks and costumes made of animal skins to make themselves appear more frightening.  These folks thought that if they looked like a ghost or a deceased being, they would perhaps blend in and be passed by if they encountered a visiting personage from the spirit world.  These earliest predecessors to the modern Halloween costume had a far more practical and direct purpose than today’s Halloween costumes do, which these days are primarily worn and enjoyed just for Halloween fun.  Today, of course, seasonal retailers such as  Halloween Express and others set up pop-up stores around the country catering to the fun side of Halloween.  

Halloween is a holiday deeply baked in long-standing superstition and traditions.   Today we enjoy Halloween for far different reasons, but it’s still fun to look back at the old legends and customs that brought us one of the most beloved events of the year.  Happy Halloween!   

 

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