Halloween is second only to Christmas in money spent specifically for the holiday. Americans spend almost $10 BILLION per year on candy, costumes, and decorations. But how many people have considered the meanings of things associated with Halloween? Here, for your edification, is Halloween deconstructed. Many Halloween traditions have their roots in ancient Celtic harvest festivals, especially the Gaelic festival of Samhain. Halloween came to America with the Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 1800s, and was widely popular by the early 1900s. But some modern Halloween traditions were first practiced approximately 4,000 BCE, so it’s no wonder that meanings and traditions have morphed over time.
Skulls serve as reminders of death and the transitory quality of human life (a reference to Golgatha in Christian tradition). A skull is often depicted with cross bones (St. Andrew’s Cross), a symbol of spiritual perfection.
A skeleton is the personification of Death and sometimes the devil. In alchemy, it is the symbol of blackness and putrefaction which precede transmutation.
In some instances a skeleton symbolizes death in general and the brevity of human life.
Druid priests would throw bones of cattle into the flames and thus bone fire became bonfire. Also, see CATS below.
One superstition is that if an unmarried woman sits in a darkened room and peers into a mirror on Halloween, she will see her marriage future. If a face appears, it will be her future husband. If a skull appears, she will die unwed.
In the United States’ Deep South there lingers a belief that white moss taken from the skull of a murdered man has special magical and medical properties.
Currently skulls represent courage and rebellion, embraced by bikers and others.
Skulls carved from crystal and mineral rocks are thought to be strongly protective and healing.
The word witch comes from the Old English wicce, meaning wise woman. Wiccan were highly respected at one time.
According to popular belief, witches held one of their two main meetings, or sabbats, on Halloween.
Witches and warlocks were regarded as priestesses and priests of devil worship.
In medieval Europe, owls were seen as witches, and have historically been one of the most popular Halloween images.
At various periods in history, witches were believed to be in league with the Devil, and anyone (mostly women) associated with unexplained occurrences was suspected of witchcraft, leading to hunts and trials.
At one time, all cats were thought to be familiars of witches, and witches were believed to be able to turn themselves into cats at will to carry out their evil intentions
Cats. During the ancient celebrations of Samhain, Druids were said to throw cats into a fire, often in wicker cages, as a means of divination. From their association with Samhain, and later witches, cats are now an integral part of Halloween, especially black cats. (see above and below.)
There is a worldwide superstition that a black cat crossing your path will bring good luck. (Be sure to make a wish if it does.) In America, black cats are generally thought to be unlucky—although black and white—and grey—cats are said to be lucky. The international good luck belief in black cats dates back to Egyptian times when one of their most important goddesses was Bast, a female black cat. So, a black cat walking into your house is an omen of good fortune, particularly of money to come.
(Other aspects of cat luck depend on whether you own it or meet it, whether or not it crosses your path, and how many cats are involved.)
Not directly related to Halloween, but in both America and Europe, a white cat is looked upon with some suspicion, and a gray tortoiseshell coming into your home is a bad omen.
Black cats are thought to have curative powers. A little blood from the tail is reputed to heal many minor wounds if rubbed on the affected area. They are also used in rituals to appease the gods, but never killed. To kill a black cat is extremely bad luck.
During the Middle Ages, Satan was believed to take the form of a black cat while consorting with witches.
Cats are not just cats. Druids believed that cats were humans who were being punished for evil acts during their lives. Opposite: Buddhists believed that cats were the temporary resting places of extremely spiritual people. Related: In Japan, it was believed that spirits of the dead sometimes take the form of female cats. Cats have long been believed to be the familiars of witches. (See above.)
A cat on top of a tombstone signals that the soul of the body buried beneath was possessed by the devil.
Although in the East, bats are a good omen, in the West, they are considered harbingers of evil. It’s a creature of mystery and darkness, coming out at night and mysteriously disappearing at dawn (as witches were also thought to do).
In the Middle Ages bats were believed to be in league with the devil and in partnership with witches. A bat was called the witches’ bird.
Bats were thought to be able to transform themselves into human form or that of a wolf or other unrelated species.
Owls are associated with both wisdom and doom. There are lengthy myths and beliefs going back to the Greeks and Romans and probably earlier. For Halloween purposes, I’ll focus on the doom beliefs. One superstition is that hearing an owl’s call is a sign that someone is about to die.
In Vedic mythology of the Hindus, Yama, the god of the dead, had owls and pigeons as his messengers.
An owl shrieking during the day heralded an impending defeat in battle, a plague, sickness, or death. In rural communities, the owl is still seen as an evil omen.
Native Americans believed the owl wasn’t a real bird but the spirit of the dead, taking that form to warn of approaching death. In addition, the hooting of the owl was sometimes the dead communicating with the living. The owl was supposed to be the heartbeat of the dead person who came to tell news in the gloom of midnight.
A Seminole Indian who hears an owl call whistles back. If the owl doesn’t answer the whistle, s/he believes s/he has received the summons of approaching death.
When a single crow caws near a house it is announcing an approaching calamity. If it flies to the left, it is a sign of bad news.
When a crow is seen immediately before or after a wedding ceremony, the unhappy couple will divorce.
Although Celtic folklore is full of ghosts, driven by both good and evil intentions, generally it’s unhealthy to meet a ghost.
Ghosts embody, and in a sense symbolize, fears of beings who dwell in another world.
The Druid Thanksgiving for harvests occurred on October 31. It was the feast of Saman, lord of Death, who called together the souls of all the wicked ones who had been condemned to inhabit the bodies of animals during the year. The good souls were believed to take human form, but it was impossible to tell the real human beings from the ones inhabited by ghosts.
Good souls entered the body of another human being for the occasion, but wicked ghosts had to roam around in search of an abode.
It was believed that any harm that might be inflicted by a wicked soul could be lightened by gifts.
Medieval people believed that cats and rabbits were inhabited by evil souls. When these animals were seen on the ground where the dead were supposed to rest forever, they were taken for ghosts in disguise.
Originally, a jack-o’-lantern was intended to light the way of a wandering spirit, denied entry into either heaven or hell. Carved pumpkins are a New World variation on an old Irish tradition.
The Irish Celts invented the jack-o’-lantern. According to folklore, Stingy Jack was out drinking with the Devil and convinced him to turn himself into a coin to pay for their drinks without spending money. He put the devil coin in his pocket with a silver cross which kept the Devil from changing back. He promised to free the devil if the Devil wouldn’t bother him for a year, and if he died, the Devil could never claim his soul. Subsequently, he tricked the Devil another time or two. When Jack finally died, God found him unfit for heaven, but the Devil had promised never to claim his soul for hell. So Jack was sent to roam the earth with only a burning coal for light.
Stingy Jack put the coal in a turnip and became Jack of the Lantern. The Irish carved jack-o’-lantern from turnips, beets, and potatoes to scare away Stingy Jack and any other spirits.
Halloween costumes are an offshoot of an ancient Celtic belief that dressing up as ghouls and other spooks would allow them to escape the notice of real spirits roaming the streets during Samhain. Traditional Halloween costumes reflect supernatural beings such as vampires, ghosts, skeletons, witches, devils, or other monsters.
According to ancient Roman records, people in today’s France and Germany wore costumes of animal heads and skins to connect to spirits of the dead.
One belief was that people who wear their cloths inside out and then walk backwards on Halloween will see a witch at midnight.
Early celebrants of Samhain often disguised themselves as evil spirits by simply blackening their faces. This may be the earliest form or “false faces,” as masks in Ireland were known.
Among the Iroquois, their False Face dances originate from Flint, the evil one of their Twin culture-heroes, who rules over darkness.
Masks sometimes carry magic power which protects their wearers against sorcerers and those who would harm them. On the other hand, members of secret societies use them to impose their will through fear.
Masks are agents to control the movements of spiritual energies scattered throughout the world and all the more dangerous for being unseen. Masks are designed to subjugate and control the invisible world. Trap them to stop their wandering.
Orange is known as a symbol of strength and endurance, often represented today by pumpkins, carved or not. FYI, A New Hampshire man has grown the largest pumpkin ever recorded in U.S. history – weighing in at an incredible 2,528 pounds. Steve Geddes of Boscawen, N.H., won $6,000 in prize money at the Deerfield Fair for his first place pumpkin on September 29, 2018.
As a color midway between yellow and red, it’s primary symbolism is that of the balance point between the spirit and the libido.
Black is frequently seen as a symbol of death and darkness, a reminder that Halloween festivals once marked the boundaries between life and death.
Black is most often seen as cold and negative, nothingness and chaos, confusion and disorder, a symbol of evil, and the color of death.
Black is the color of melancholy, pessimism, sorrow, and misfortune.
Brown and gold are typically the symbolism of autumn and harvest. Corn stalks and hay bales are common representatives today. Scarecrows symbolize the agricultural roots of Halloween.
Brown is the color of earth and excrement. At various times, in various cultures, it has been the color of melancholy, humility, poverty, and sadism.
In Ireland, brown shared all the underworld and warlike symbolism of black.
Gold and light are symbols knowledge leading to immortality. If it is used well, in the search for knowledge, it brings happiness. Otherwise it brings disaster. The color gold and the pure metal are solar symbols, but “minted gold” is a symbol of perversion and the exaltation of unclean desire, the spiritual degraded to the level of the material, the immortal to the mortal.
In Greek tradition, gold is associated with the sun—and thus fertility, wealth, dominion, a center of warmth, love and generosity, the fire of light, knowledge and radiance.
In ancient times, the Celts put treats on their doorsteps and in the streets to provide offerings to placate the spirits who roamed the streets at Samhain, a sacred festival that marked the end of the Celtic calendar year.
“Souling” is a medieval Christian precursor to modern trick-or-treating. On “Hallowmas” (Nov. 1) the poor would go from house to house, offering prayers for the dead in exchange for soul cakes.
Early door-to-door begging involved the poor seeking coins.
Some trace trick-or-treating to the practice of mumming or guysinging, which involved costumed people going door-to-door performing prepared dances, songs, and plays in exchange for treats. This was common in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Wales.
The first known mention of trick-or-treating in North America was 1927, in Canada.
October 31 is traditionally the time when the spirits of the dead are allowed a last fling before winter sets in. In Ireland, it’s said that if you hear footsteps behind you on that night, it is one of the dead following you and you never look around lest you see him or her and soon become one of them.
During celebrations of Samhain, bonfires were lit to ensure that the sun would return after the long, hard winter. Even earlier, worshipers of Baal, the Syrian sun-god, built fires in his honor about the same time of year as Halloween. Around 837, when Pope Gregory IV declared Nov. 1 as All Saints Day, people believed that ghosts and goblins were abroad on the eve of All Saints Day and built great bonfires to keep them away.
To banish evil spirits, walk around your house three times backward and counterclockwise before sunset on Halloween.
Hallowe’en dates back to about 1745 and is of Christian origin. Halloween is short for Hallows Eve, which was the evening before All Hallows (sanctified or holy) Day, also known as Hallowmas on Nov. 1.
In Mexico, people dress up like ghouls and parade in the streets to celebrate The Day of the Dead on All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2).
Teng Chieh (Lantern Festival) is one Halloween celebration in China in which dragon and other animal lanterns are put out to guide spirits back to their earthly homes. Food and water to honor their deceased loved ones are placed by ancestral portraits. In Hong Kong Yue Lan (Festival of the Hungry Ghosts) includes fires, food, and gifts to placate angry ghosts looking for revenge.
San-Apple Night and Nutcrack Night are names derived from the ancient Roman Festival of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds. Halloween customs and games that feature nuts and apples (such as candied apples and bobbing for apples) have their roots here. Apples are strongly associated with the otherworld and immortality, while hazelnuts were associated with divine wisdom.
In some American towns, Halloween was referred to as Cabbage Night, and the use of cabbage in a Scottish fortune-telling game. BTW, there are many old traditions in which girls can “see” their future husbands on Halloween. Several other fortune telling activities involve apple peels, pairs of hazelnuts near open fires, salty oatmeal bannocks, or items symbolizing the future hidden in food (e.g., a cake), or stones around the remains of a bonfire.
Besides those mentioned above, Halloween has been called Witches Night, Lamswool, Snap-Apple Night, and Summer’s End.
BOTTOM LINE: Everything associated with Halloween has deep roots and multiple meanings. Know what you’re symbolizing! And incidentally, make your characters know, too.
FYI: Samhainophobia is the fear of Halloween!
As I’ve written before, the term “healthy relationships” doesn’t necessarily pertain to just romantic partners; it can also include family and friends. A handout I received during an event with Hanover Safe Place (see image above) listed the following characteristics as being part of a healthy relationship:
An article in Psychology Today, written by Alice Boyes, Ph.D., goes a few steps further. It lists 50 characteristics of healthy relationships. By clicking the link, you can read through these characteristics; if you can answer “yes” to most of these statements, it’s likely you’re in a healthy relationship. Remember to be truthful with yourself!
There are also questions you can ask yourself about your relationships (see above handout). These questions vary, but include:
Healthy relationships are built on equality between the partners. One person should not have most of the power in the relationship! Being in communication with one another, giving as well as receiving, and keeping the relationship balanced are all important to maintain a healthy relationship.
I’m very pleased that Dr. Heidi Hammel agreed to a print interview about this book! I’ve long believed in the power of books, especially for young minds. My childhood home didn’t have children’s books but I recently read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time. Dr. Hammel’s experience makes me wish I’d had it as a child!
VL: How did you come to read A Wrinkle In Time?
HH: On my tenth birthday, in 1970, my 11-year-old brother gave me a copy of A Wrinkle in Time. This was the scholastic paperback edition, blue with series of concentric rings around three small characters.
VL: What was going on in your life at the time?
HH: I was just a kid, a young girl specifically, at a time when girls did just girl things. Sugar and spice and everything nice. Glass ceilings everywhere. Invisible glass ceilings—most girls didn’t even THINK of doing things other than being a wife, a nurse, or a teacher. Maybe a daring girl could be a flight attendant or a secretary. But no real girls did science or space research or math. (Madame Curie was a unicorn, a historic anomaly, not a real regular person.)
VL: I can absolutely identify with that. I read the Cherry Ames series about the adventures of a nurse. Although she was a great role model in many ways—daring and caring and a problem solver—in high school I wanted to become a surgeon. Although I was valedictorian of my class, I was counseled to become a nurse instead—albeit with a B.S. degree so I could move up in administration. I do admire your determination! But tell me, in what way(s) did the book affect you?
HH: The book blew my mind. Here was a girl like me – her physical description was mine, from the limp non-descript hair to the glasses and teeth that would need braces; her school life was like mine – interested in things that other girls were not like atomic particles and space, and not really accepted as “popular.” Yet, for all her faults – indeed, specifically BECAUSE of her faults – she completed a hero’s journey. What an eye-opener. What a LIFE opener. A literal literary role model. If an ordinary girl like Meg could find her father across all of space and time, then all things were possible for me. When, years later, a special teacher suggested I apply to MIT for college, I had a “WWMD” (what would Meg do) moment, and said “sure!” The rest is history, as they say.
VL: Did you ever reread A Wrinkle In Time? When and why?
HH: I’ve reread A Wrinkle in Time many times over the years. During my high-school years, as an undergraduate at MIT, while in graduate school for physics, as a young mother, and even now. I reread books I love, because the stories ring true, and because I sense different overtones based on who I am and what I have experienced in my own life. Things that may not have registered to me as a 10-yr-old, or 30-yr-old, or a 50-yr-old take on new meaning when viewed through the lenses of varied experience.
VL: So true! In my younger years, when my primary escapist reading was murder mysteries, I never reread them. Once you know “who done it,” what’s the point? The exception back then was Jane Austen, whom I discovered in college and have reread many times since. Now, since I started writing them, I seldom read mysteries. My escapist reading goes in all sorts of directions and I reread often! I also tend to give books I love to others. Have you ever given A Wrinkle in Time to others? If so, who and why?
HH: I gave this book as gifts to friends as a young girl, especially those friends who I thought might share in the vision of what young women could be and could do.
I read it aloud to my own children, so they could travel through the tesseract with me to worlds so different from – yet so like – our home planet.
VL: What other books by Madeleine L’Engle have you read?
HH: I’ve read all of her books. The complete Kairos and Chronos series, as well as her books for adults. I admit to enjoying the “young adult” books more than the books specifically for adults.
VL: Has any other book been as influential in your life? If so, please elaborate what, when, and why.
HH: I think the only other book that comes close to having a visceral impact on me would be Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. In this book, Bradbury paints a tapestry of human exploration on Mars through a series of short stories that are as much poetry as science fiction. The stories are deeply human emotional stories, but told from the perspective of Martian natives. It was brain-bending in an orthogonal way to A Wrinkle in Time but nearly as powerful and evocative.
VL: What a recommendation! Perhaps I have my next escapist read lined up. But to close out here, what else would you like to say about A Wrinkle in Time and/or Madeleine L’Engle?
HH: My hope is that each generation of girls and boys have Madeleine L’Engle’s books placed in their hands at a young age.
VL: I join you in that hope! And thank you again for sharing your experience with and thoughts about this powerful book.
Planetary astronomer Heidi B. Hammel graduated from MIT and the University of Hawaii, and did her post-doctoral work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. She is Executive Vice President of AURA, which operates astronomical observatories including the Hubble Space Telescope. Dr. Hammel is also an interdisciplinary scientist for NASA’s next great space observatory: the James Webb Space Telescope. She has been profiled by The New York Times and Newsweek Magazine, and in 2002 Discover Magazine identified her as one of the 50 most important women in science. Dr. Hammel has been lauded for her work in science communication, including the San Francisco Exploratorium’s 1998 Public Understanding of Science Award. Asteroid “1981 EC20” was renamed 3530 Hammel in her honor. You can read more about Dr. Hammel here.
Stay tuned for our #WrinkleReRead giveaway of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Becoming Madeleine, a biography of the life and works of Madeleine L’Engle written by her granddaughters.
In these hectic days, even if you only have minutes, I have reading suggestions!
The December 18 & 25 issue of The New Yorker contains a two-column theater review of SpongeBob SquarePants the musical. No kidding: THAT SpongeBob SquarePants, who debuted in 1999 and, as Tommy Smothers might say, took the storm by country.
The play has all the pun-intended characters, from Mr. Krabs to Squidward Q. Tentacles. It has songs by Cindi Lauper, They Might Be Giants, and others.
The review is lively, well-written, and very positive. Read the review even if you have no intention of hieing off to NYC any time soon.
If you’re a more literary type, sample a little Charles Simic. Simic immigrated from Belgrade in 1954 and started publishing poetry in his twenties. He’s won tons of awards, including a Pulitzer. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States in 2008 and 2009.
This book contains nearly 400 poems spanning fifty years, including about three dozen revisions and seventeen previously unpunished poems. Simic is witty, broad-ranging, and fresh. He can enthrall you for as many minutes—or hours—as you can spare.
Many of the issues people faced in the 1880s and ‘90s are surprisingly modern as well: invasion of privacy, divorce, dealing with people from other places or cultures, technologies developing at mind-boggling speed…
For your convenience, advice is organized by topic. You will find sound guidance, such as telling husbands to give their wives (one at a time, please) every advantage it is possible to bestow, and—as far as possible—to patronize merchants of their own town.
BONUS: There are watercolors and illustrations throughout.
If you are introspective and/or looking for inspiration, Mark Nepo’s got you covered.
Nepo is a poet and teacher, and—by the way—a New York Times Bestseller.
Oprah Winfrey, among others, recommends this book. It contains 366 dated entries, including one for February 29th. Each begins with a brief quote, followed by author’s reflections to inspire your own musings.
However, there is also a subject index with multiple entries under such headings as sadnesses, truth, and quiet teachers.
FYI, here is the beginning of the entry for today.
Even though time is short, happy reading!