As we all know, Halloween evolved from the Irish celebration of Samhain, but its modern iconography has taken influence from other similar celebrations like the Mexican Day of the Dead, a mix itself of ancient Aztec traditions and Catholic All Saint’s Day Celebrations. Being the second most important holiday of the year, after Christmas, in terms of commercialism and decoration, it’s interesting to know a little bit more about the origins of all these symbols.
The popular witches, which we see nowadays on countless Halloween themed decorations, have almost the same origins as Halloween itself. According to celtic legends, Samhain was the time of the season in which the Crone rules.
Lee Hutchings, ancient goddess expert and blogger, says: “The Crone is a symbol of inherent wisdom that comes from experience. She has lived through love, sorrow, hope, and fear, coming out of it all a wise and confident spirit. Through these experiences she has learned the secrets of life and death and of the mysteries beyond this world. She has tasted death itself and watched those she loved make the journey before her. It is through her mourning that she faces death, grows to understand it, and becomes the gatekeeper between worlds….”
The modern version of The Crone is the one of Halloween’s most enigmatic symbols: a mean, ugly old witch flying on a broom stick across the moon. With her cackling laugh, her stringy gray hair, hairy chin and warts, she frightens children everywhere.
The Colour Orange
The colours orange and black are representations of the time of year, rather than any Halloween lore or mythology. The colour orange represents autumn, when the leaves change from green and orange pumpkins are ripe for the picking. Samhain marked the transition between “light” days and “dark” days – so the black likely represents those dark days of winter when there are fewer daylight hours to attend to the fields and crops.
Samhain not only celebrated the end of harvest, but also those had passed into the next “realm,” it is called by some a “festival of the dead.”
The idea of ghosts plays into this idea that Halloween night is the one night that the spirits of the ancestors are able to walk among the living.
This is also another close similarity with the Mexican Day of the Dead, which will be mentioned in more detailed later.
Celebrators of Samhain would wear costumes in order to treat the roaming spirits of the dead. It was thought that if you could trick the spirit, the spirit would stop bothering you about tributes and respect.
In the early 20th century, Americans started wearing costumes for Halloween, which was celebrated but not with the Celtic beliefs in mind. In the 1950′s, trick-or treating gained strong popularity in the United States but it actually started out in Great Britain and Ireland as something called “Souling,” as far back as the Middle Ages. Poor children, called “guisers”, would go door-to-door collecting handouts in return for their prayers for the dead.
Originally, the aforementioned “guisers” would carry turnips with candles inside them to light their way from house to house to beg and pray. Eventually, the tradition changed to carving pumpkins, and Jack-o-Lanterns as we know them were born. One legend sticks out above all others in regards to the Jack-o-lantern tradition.
An Irishman named “Stingy Jack” was a drunk and a prankster, and he somehow managed to make both God and the Devil angry. He died, and neither heaven nor hell wanted him, so he was stuck wandering around on earth. He carried a turnip with a candle inside, to light his way, and to keep him from knocking on their door, the Irish would carve scary jack-o-lanterns to put around their houses to keep him away.
The Druids and the Celts believed that the skull was the “psychic seat” of the human soul.
All in all, skulls and skeletons are associated with Halloween because they represent the end of the physical part of life, something that is connected to Halloween both because of the death of the “light” seasons and because of the perceived connection to the spirit realm.
Skeletons and skulls were also symbols of death celebration festivities in Mexico. In the pre-Hispanic era, skulls were commonly kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
The Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl was the Queen of the Mictlán, the ninth and final level of the underworld. Her purpose was to look after the bones of the dead and preside over the Aztec festivals honouring the death.
Her name means “Lady of Death” in Nahuatl, because legend says she died at the same time she was born.
After the Spanish conquest, the Aztec celebrations evolved into the modern day Day of the Dead, where Mexicans pray for their dead and offer them colourful sugar skulls, bread, among other things.
La Calavera Garbancera, shown to the left, by José Guadalupe Posadas is one of its most iconic symbols. “Calavera” means skull in Spanish and “Garbancera” was a pejorative word used in early 20th Century to describe people of indigenous appearance who wanted to look like an European.
This famous skeleton was later more commonly known as “La Catrina” thanks to Diego Rivera’s mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central), shown to the right, where she appears next to Posadas himself.
Halloween is, just like almost any holiday, a very rich cluster of symbols and traditions that reflect our common history, fears, beliefs and hopes. However, what makes it stand out above the rest is that it doesn’t necessarily celebrates joy, love, birth, history, patriotism or any positive concept like the other holidays. Our ancestors feared winter and death, but in the end, these concepts were accepted as part of a unavoidable and neverending cycle.