By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 31 December 2011)
Halloween began as Samhain (Summer’s End), an ancient Celtic festival that marked summer’s death and the point at which the Celtic New Year began. Associated with the change of seasons, this sacred holiday was a night of power and magic.
Halloween activities such as dressing in costumes, lighting bonfires, going to parties, sharing ghost stories, and trick-or-treating all originated with the Samhain festival, but many popular Halloween symbols such witches and black cats did not become associated with the holiday until later on.
The Celts and Samhain
Halloween originated with the Celtic Feast of Samhain, during which it was believed that ancestral spirits might emerge and roam freely because the walls between the living and the dead were at their thinnest. Live people wore costumes to make themselves appear dead so that evil spirits wouldn’t bother them. They also made offerings of food to to secure more compassionate treatment from Saman, appease troublemaking spirits, and nourish journeying ancestral ghosts. A horse or a cat might be sacrificed on a bonfire during the festival. There is still debate on whether or not human sacrifices took place as well, as this may have been Roman propaganda.
The Romans, upon conquering the Celts, took over Samhain and turned it into a two-fold celebration of Feralia (the passing of the dead) in late October and the harvest goddess Pomona on November 1. Apples were associated with Pomona, and thus became firmly entrenched as part of the Halloween festivities.
Christianity and All Hallow’s Eve
When Christianity swept the land, pagan rituals were converted to Christian rituals such as All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Later called All Hallow’s Mass, then All Hallow’s Eve, and finally Halloween, it was believed that every soul in purgatory was released on this day to roam the earth for 48 hours. Rather than offering wine and food to these spirits, Christians went from door to door with a lantern made from a hollow turnip to symbolize a soul in purgatory. Households would offer “Soul Cakes” in exchange for having these visitors pray for the dead. While the pagans made bonfires to honour the sun, the Christians lit them to drive Satan away.
The Celtic Druids eventually came to be viewed as witches, and the subsequent witchcraze led to the horrific murders of vast numbers of women, men, and animals, particularly nocturnal animals, with cats most frequently targeted. It was believed that witches could shapeshift, and that they would most often take the form of cats, which were believed to be their familiars. In some cases cats were thought to be reincarnated witches as well. The widespread slaughter of cats during this time contributed to the human death toll from the black plague, as cats had kept the population of rats that carried plague-bearing fleas under control.
In the UK, black cats were believed to bring good luck, but in North America, the opposite superstition took hold. The association of the Celtic Druids with witchcraft ensured that witches and cats became two of the most enduring Halloween symbols and gave rise to a number of superstitions surrounding black cats in the New World. To this day, there are people who continue to associate black cats with evil.
Modern Halloween Rituals
After the American Revolution, North American boys often celebrated Halloween with mischief such as ruining cabbage patches, setting horses free, and blocking people’s chimneys, while girls usually stayed home, spending their time bobbing for apples to divine who they would marry, though both boys and girls enjoyed ghost stories. In the 1800s, an influx of Irish settlers to the New World revived many of the earlier Halloween traditions, particularly house-to-house visits, wearing costumes, and lighting the insides of hollow vegetables.
Jack-O’-Lanterns may have been named for the story of a sinful man named Jack who managed to trap Satan in a tree and refused to set him free unless he promised to spare Jack from an eternity in hell. Unable to enter heaven or hell, Jack was given a hellfire ember to place inside either a carrot or turnip so that he could find his way around earth’s dark places. Later, pumpkins were used to make these lanterns, as their size made them more suited to carrying a flame.
The Irish were not the only contributors to Halloween traditions. Scottish and German settlers added to America’s witchcraft mythology, while those from Africa contributed aspects of Voudon (Voodoo). The focus on mischief making was gradually reduced as householders began to bribe their ghoulish visitors with candy, giving rise to the modern version of Halloween. Cats and witches remain among the most popular Halloween costumes.
The Black Cat in Present Day
Today, pet owners usually decide to keep their cats indoors for a few days on either side of Halloween for fear that they’ll be abducted for satanic rituals. However, the greater threat that animals face as a result of superstition is the inability to find loving homes.
Sadly, the black cat has never entirely shed the association with evil that it acquired as a result of the convergence of superstitious prejudice and Halloween lore, and black dogs suffer this stigma to a lesser extent as well. Animal rescue operations often note the difficulty in finding homes for black cats and dogs, even though most experts agree that fur colour has no effect on personality, and the few studies that have been conducted with cats suggest that black fur may actually be associated with better temperament.
- BBC.co.UK. “Hallowe’en – All Hallow’s Eve.”
- Grandin, Temple. (2009). Animals Make Us Human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Meeker, Herb. (31 October 2007). “Feared Felines: Superstitions Surrounding Black Cats Largely Stem from Centuries-Old Folklore.” Journal Gazette–Times Courier.
- RandomHistory.com. (1 September 2008). “A Most Bewitching Night: The History of Halloween.”