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.