The history behind the many popular Halloween symbols that have come to represent the celebration as we know it today is fascinating. Leading back to ancient times with folk lore and myths it is an intriguing subject to explore.
Along with the celebration of Halloween itself, the traditional Halloween symbols (witches, black cats, pumpkins, ghosts, candles, masks, etc.), found their way to the U.S. during the late 1800s. In 1848, the potato famine sent millions of Irish immigrants streaming into America, bringing with them a new culture and customs. In the manner of their Celtic ancestors, they celebrated Halloween, calling it Oidche Shamhna (’Night of Samhain’), and kept up the traditional observances associated with it.
The jack-o-lantern has been an indispensable part of the Halloween tradition since the Victorian era, thanks again to our Irish friends. On Halloween, jack-o-lanterns carved into a scary or funny face with a lighted candle placed inside, are set out on porches or placed in windows, but where once they were created in the hope of frightening away evil spirits that were on the prowl, now they are just a part of the celebration.
Originally, back on their home turf, the Irish would carve out turnips or beets to use as lanterns and use a burning lump of coal or a candle to light them. Here in America, however, turnips weren’t as easy to come by, but there were pumpkins aplenty. So they substituted pumpkins and discovered that they served the purpose quite nicely.
While there are many legends pertaining to the origin of the Jack-o-lantern, one of the most widely accepted is that of “Stingy Jack.” An Irishman known as a drunken trickster, Jack wound up on the wrong side of both God and the devil. Upon his death his soul was forbidden to enter either heaven or hell and so was doomed to wander the earth in eternal darkness forever. On his endless travels he carries a turnip with a burning coal to light his way. Fearing this unsavory character, the Irish of old would put jack-o-lanterns on prominent display around their homes on All Hallow’s Eve, the purpose being that should Jack happen by, hopefully he would take the light instead of harming the occupants of the house.
Throughout history black cats have been considered to be spiritual animals by many peoples. Some have worshiped them believing they have the ability to see spirits. Others have believed them to be reincarnated beings who could predict the future. Over the centuries black cats have also been much maligned. It was believed that witches owned black cats because they were able to assist them in performing their witchcraft and because they sensed a kindred spirit of darkness within these animals. During the Middle Ages black cats were feared because it was believed that witches could turn themselves into black cats. Whenever a black cat was seen it was avoided at all costs because it was perceived to be a witch in disguise. Unfortunately for them, during this time black cats were regularly hunted down and burned alive.