Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Halloween and Samhain Traditions

Researching for this month's Myth Perceptions blog led me down many paths and evoked many a wonderful memory. Why? Because of Halloween, of course. Or as I prefer to call it, Samhain (pronounced sow-in). Many of our popular Halloween traditions are based on older traditions with surprising purposes. So, be warned, this post is likely to ramble as I bounce from fun fact to fun fantasy and back again.

Take for example costumes. Halloween is all about the costumes. I love costumes and our own Alexa Day posted two very useful blogs about creating your costume for this year. One here at W3 and another on her personal blog.

I discovered that the concept of costumes can perhaps be traced back to a traditional belief that wearing your clothing inside out will make you invisible to the Fae. Now, do not confuse the Fae with fairies as in Tinkerbell. Oh no, the Fae are powerful and definitely more inclined to trick than to treat. So, on Halloween, when the veil is thinnest, folks would wear costumes in order to avoid the attention of the fairies and the dead. Personally, I'm glad this evolved from wearing your clothes inside out to designing something outre to wear!

Another thread lead me to the traditional explanation for jack o'lanterns being that folks would carve faces on hollowed out turnips and set them in their windows to ward away evil. While some historians take exception to this theory, I find myself easily imagining the little lanterns flickering in windows across a dark and windy countryside. When you lived in a world where you could never be sure of what was going bump in the night, you would appreciate any extra protection you could get. I know I would!

One particular Irish folk tale about jack o'lanterns involves an unsavory and rather tricky character called Stingy Jack. This brazen fellow twice trapped the Devil, exhorting a promise that the Devil would not take his soul as the price for the Devil's freedom. When Stingy Jack truly died, they wouldn't let him into Heaven and the Devil refused to take him in honor of his promise. When Stingy Jack complained about having no place to go and no way to see his way, the Devil tossed him an ember from the fires of hell which Jack put into a carved out turnip lantern. (I guess the ol' Devil had a soft place in his heart for the wily Jack) Using it to light his way, Jack began searching the earth for some place to rest and became known as Jack of the Lantern or Jack o' Lantern.

Since Samhain is the last of the harvest festivals, apples and nuts figured prominently in both the feasts and the traditions. In fact, there's an entire group of spells called apple magic. One spell is to peel an apple and then toss the peel over your shoulder asking to know the name of your future spouse. The shape it makes on the ground is supposed to be the first initial of your intended. Nuts were marked with the names (or initials) of two lovers and then placed on the hearth to roast. If they stayed together, the couple would do the same. If the nuts popped apart, the relationship appeared doomed to end.

Trick or treating had various incarnations as well. In olden times, children may have dressed in disguise and tried to earn a coin or treat by entertaining others. In a more recent form, I remember a wonderful scene in Meet Me In St. Louis where the neighborhood children didn't trick or treat for candy, but for old worn out household goods to throw onto a bonfire. Why, I was never quite certain, but it looked like fun! Though I admit I prefer the candy myself.
This pumpkin looks like...brains!

And I guess that's what is best about this particular holiday. It's about fun, without all the hooplah and expectations of Christmas/Yule. It's about letting yourself play and that's never a bad thing. So, make up your costume to protect yourself from the Fae, carve out a jack o'lantern for that wily ol' Stingy Jack, and treat yourself to some tricks or treats of your own making.

Happy Samhain! Blessed Be!

Denise Golinowski is a reader and writer of fantasy and romance. Her first enovella, The Festival of the Flowers: The Courtesan and the Scholar is available now through the Wild Rose Press. Her second enovella, Collector's Item will also be published by The Wild Rose Press in 2013. You can also visit her blog at Golinowski's Gambol.


  1. Well, first of all, I have to thank you for noting how to correctly pronounce "Samhain." I've always stumbled over it. I think I'll print your post and stick it on my "reference" bulletin board! Great fun facts about Halloween, too! I'd never heard most of them. Question: The "fae" can be good or evil, right?

  2. Hi Leah! I'm glad to settle that pronunciation issue for you, though there will still be folks who lean to one or another variation. I was taught it is NOT Sam-Hayne to those in the Craft. And yes, the Fae like any creature of intelligence - they can be good or evil. Though the definitions of good or evil for the Fae would probably surprise us. They are popularly grouped as Light or Dark Fae, though I believe the traditional separations are Seelie and Unseelie Courts. But that's the tip of the iceberg. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  3. How cool! I'd love to meet the Fae but even wearing my normal clothes they refuse to turn up! :)

    Thanks for another great post, Denise. I learned a lot about what is becoming my favorite holiday.

  4. Thanks for dropping by, Tina. Happy Halloween!

  5. Great post, Denise, but that pumpkin is freaking me out! LOL!

  6. Thanks for the shoutout to my costume posts!

    This is such a great post. I'm so curious about the Fae and I'm always up for a good devil story. So excited about Halloween!

    See that comment up there -- the one that's removed by the author? Yeah, that's me, too. Sorry about that. I haven't been right since I tried to eat that piece of soap.