Halloween and the History of Witches

Modern depiction of a witch

Modern depiction of a witch

With Halloween approaching, you’ve probably seen witches decorating people’s houses and yards. Maybe you or a friend will dress up as a witch before going trick-or-treating. But do you know how witches became a symbol of Halloween?

In another blog post, I wrote about the festival of Samhain, which represented the start of winter and the New Year for the Celtic people. Celts believed that the dead roamed the earth on Samhain. The Celtic priests, called Druids, told the people that since spirits knew a great deal about the afterlife, predictions for the future would be more accurate on Samhain. The practices of Druid priests, such as predicting the health of the community or figuring out how to cure an illness, were associated with witchcraft.

The Celts did not view witchcraft or witches as evil. That idea came from the early Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. Though the Church incorporated some elements of Samhain into a new holiday that honored the dead with prayers (All Saints’ Day), witches were excluded. The word witch meant “wise one,” and the male heads of the Church saw witches’ knowledge of the natural world as a threat to the Church’s authority. As one historian put it, women did not fit into the early Church hierarchy of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God in all his forms was referred to as “He.”

To rid the communities of witches, the Church claimed that these women made a pact with the devil and wanted to bring harm to their neighbors. Witch-hunts became popular not only in the Middle Ages but also during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe. Most witch-hunts occurred in areas with political and religious turmoil. Accused witches were either burned at the stake or hanged.

Like their European counterparts, American colonists also viewed witches as evil. Colonists blamed witches for their problems, such as illness or poor a harvest. When teenaged girls in Salem, Massachusetts consulted an African slave to tell their futures, they became frightened and appeared possessed by an evil force. The town’s church leaders accused the slave woman of witchcraft, and other colonists used the hysteria to accuse neighbors they disliked of planting spells that caused illness or other problems. The witch trials in Salem sentenced twenty people to death in 1692.

Salem’s residents, along with most colonists, did not celebrate All Saints’ Day because they were Protestants who didn’t believe in saints. Some aspects of the holiday were preserved, however. For example, New England residents celebrated the harvest in late autumn. The Puritan beliefs in the magic of witches and fortunetelling eventually led to our modern day Halloween celebrations, which prominently feature witches.

Halloween History: Where and When Costume Parties and Trick-or-Treating Began

Maybe you’re planning to go to a Halloween party soon, or you’re looking forward to trick-or-treating. Your preparations for Halloween will be different than those of the Celts in Ireland 2,000 years ago, but their festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), was the first celebration of the holiday. Samhain represented the Celtic new year—the time when summer ended and winter began. The word Samhain means the end of summer. During this period, the ghosts of the dead returned to visit the living. In order to prevent the dead from causing havoc and perhaps destroying crops, the Celts wore animal costumes and masks. The Celts also left out gifts of food for the spirits and burnt crops and animals to appease the Celtic gods.

When the Romans conquered Celtic territory, a blend of Celtic and Roman traditions for honoring the dead occurred. In 1000 A.D., the Catholic church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, celebrated much like Samhain with bonfires and people dressed in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. November 1 (All Saints’ Day) was set aside to honor only saints and martyrs, but the evening before it, when the Celts had celebrated Samhain, was called All-hallows Eve. Thus the original date the Celts celebrated Samhain became our present day Halloween.

Children did not come to the doors of people’s homes shouting trick-or-treat during these early Halloween celebrations, however. One possible precedent for trick-or-treating started in medieval Europe on All Souls’ Day. An English version depicted beggars and children asking people for soul cakes, which when eaten would help a lost soul get to heaven.  Halloween reached the U.S. thanks to Irish immigrants who came to the country in the nineteenth-century, but the focus of the day was more on parties and pranks than candy. Tricks played by children included covering windows with soap, removing gates, and tying doors shut. Adults in small towns who usually knew the neighborhood kids went along with the story that the tricks were performed by goblins and witches.

As American towns grew into cities where people no longer knew one another, adults got tired of the pranks. Communities started holding costume parties to get control over what the kids did on Halloween. By the 1930s, homeowners offered treats to children on Halloween if they promised not to play any tricks. Today kids attend parties and yell “trick or treat” at the doors of neighbors, though many don’t know how these traditions got started. So if you want to play a harmless trick on your friends this Halloween, see if they can guess the history behind Halloween.

For more on the history of Halloween, see http://www.history.com/topics/halloween