FUN FACTS AND THE HISTORY OF HALLOWEEN DECORATIONS
- By Jenna Maxwell
Enlightening and Frightening: The History Behind Today's Halloween Decorations!
As soon as that first waft of autumn air hits, it happens. The annual fall ritual of Halloween and autumn decorating begins. Brightly colored pumpkins, dried corn stalks, hay bales, scarecrows and autumn leaves adorn porches, doorways and yards throughout communities. The scarier and more frightening look of Halloween décor comes along with the fall months as well; adding it’s own unique touch of spooky flair to the autumn vibe. It’s an annual autumnal tradition that most of us enjoy every year; we do it without really thinking much about it. Have you ever wondered where the idea for all this Halloween seasonal décor came from? In order to get to the root of Halloween decorating as well as the popular Halloween symbols that go along with it, you have to look back into history a few thousand years.
Halloween today is one of the most favored of all the holidays. Between dressing up in costumes, going to parties and the beloved tradition of trick or treating, what’s not to love about this traditional celebration? Halloween wasn’t always so fun and happy, however, and if you’ve ever wondered about the darker and spookier side of Halloween, you can take a look back into history and dig into the mind of the deeply superstitious ancient man.
Several thousand years ago and long before Halloween as we know it, there was an end of the summer festival that was known as Samhain
. As the harvest season came to its wintery close, ancient pagan Celtic people honored the gods and goddesses of the harvest by holding the celebration. Samhain was considered a time for the people to show gratitude and to pay homage to the gods of the harvest who the people felt were responsible for their bounty. Samhain was marked with great celebrating and revelry by the locals, which included great feasting and dancing. Large bonfires were created in which animal sacrifices were made to honor the gods of the harvest. But Samhain was not all about happiness and good times. Samhain was also a time of great superstition, darkness and even fear.
Samhain tradition had many deep seeded supernatural practices that were an integral part of the annual festivities. The somewhat fearful and uneducated people that lived during these ancient days fervently believed that the end of the harvest and the onset of winter also created an unusual opportunity for the spirits of the newly deceased. During the short window of time surrounding Samhain, it was commonly believed that the souls of the dead could return to life and mingle amongst the living.
Not knowing what ramifications that might come with the return of these spirits, local villagers took what they felt were necessary precautions, hoping this would ensure their safety and spare them from any evil doings that these spirits might potentially incite. Some of the safeguards that the locals used to ensure their safety against potentially vengeful spirits required some careful planning and preparation. Special lanterns with frightful faces cut into the flesh were made from turnips. These lanterns were used to light the way of the villagers during the Samhain festivities, but they were also thought to be a scary deterrent that would ward off any malevolent spirits that might be out and about. Additionally, lavish food offerings were left out on tables for the spirits to eat if they desired. Finally, as a simple way to avoid any potential contact with any dead spirits, local residents of the community put on masks; animal skins and frightening disguises that made them look as scary as possible. The point of these early costumes was to appear not only very frightful but to perhaps even look dead; thus it was thought that if a spirit came across someone dressed up like this, it would be assumed by the spirit that these folks were also just one of the deceased and they would be left alone.
Christian Influences on Halloween
When Christianity first came to the European countries the hierarchy and the missionaries of the church were quick to realize that the Celtic-pagan people were kind of set in their ways when it came to a good party and were not very likely to be hip to the idea of giving up their Samhain celebrating. Pope Gregory III
devised a clever tactic of getting the Celts to convert to Christianity and to also keep their ancient traditions intact. The festivities surrounding Samhain were altered a bit and were changed, now being called “All Saints Day.” All Saints Day or All Hallows Day was sanctioned by the Catholic church, black cat halloweenspecifically designated as a special day set aside in order to pray for all Saints and martyrs as well as a time to pray for the souls of the newly deceased, ensuring their safe passage into heaven.
One of the rituals that became popularly associated with All Saints Day was the practice of souling. The needy or impoverished would call upon the homes of the wealthier members of society and then offer to pray on behalf of their newly departed. In exchangefor these special prayers, the more affluent folks would then offer the poorer visitors a “soul cake,” a type of pastry, in return for these prayers. Recognizing the possibility that the more prayers a dead person had, the better off he might be, many took advantage of this mutually advantageous deal, and souling became an annual practice employed by many during this time. The tradition of souling is likely the earliest source of the beloved ritual we know today as trick or treating.
Halloween Comes to America
The celebration of Halloween wasn’t really a big part of the very earliest American culture and settlements. Puritans and Protestants were very afraid and obviously reluctant to participate in any holiday with a somewhat dubious history filled with deeply dark practices and any association with many things they were terrified of, including witchcraft, demons, ghosts and the like. Halloween and anything resembling it was generally disdained as well as shunned by the very religiously strict Puritan people.
The Irish potato famine
that occurred in 1845 led to a massive influx of Irish immigrants that came to America. Along with the Irish people making their way west, also came many of the ancient Irish customs and traditions. One of the favorite institutions coming from the depths of Celtic history was that of Halloween; and the holiday of Halloween had now been officially brought into America. Although initially celebrated by only smaller ethnic enclaves of primarily Irish people, eventually the idea of celebrating Halloween became embraced by the masses.
The early American immigrants had many different traditions and bits of folklore to bring to the table when it came to getting into the spirit of Halloween and creating a proper celebration to go with it. Although originally having a very dark, mystical and supernatural history, Halloween traditions were now encouraged that had a more fun and family-oriented feel to them, with less emphasis being placed on ghosts, death, witchcraft and other extreme dark superstitions. Some scary traditions surrounding Halloween persisted more than others as the years passed. Fortune telling and the telling of ghost stories became very popular during this time of the year. Dressing up or guising in order to go door to door in search of goodies also became part of those very early annual Halloween rituals.
By the 1920’s, Halloween celebrating had gotten completely out of control. The once fun and family friendly traditions surrounding the Halloween festivities were now fraught with vandalism, extreme levels of mischief and even in some cases, needless violence. Many communities were forced to put the kibosh on a lot of Halloween activities and merriment because of the extreme level of pranks and general mayhem that was often happening in conjunction with all the fun. The holiday of Halloween had become scary in a far different sort of way and a large level of hoodlumism had taken a hold of this once beloved holiday, causing great concerns in many municipalities across the country.
Because of the somewhat vicious turn that Halloween celebrating had taken, many communities took the opportunity to now take a strong stand about what would be accepted and what would not when it came to Halloween festivities. During WWII, the idea of Halloween was all but abandoned anyway due to sugar rationing, so much of the chaos that had been associated with this holiday died from natural causes. By the time the war was over, Halloween was ready to be brought back to life with a new, fresh, family-friendly face. The acts of maliciousness of the past were largely abandoned, as Halloween once again became a holiday fully embraced by children and families around the country. With the popularity of Halloween fully rekindled, decorating for this ever popular celebration took on a life of it’s own. Throughout the ensuing decades, the use of Halloween decorations has become more elaborate and more important with each and every passing year. Although our modern world has changed the way we decorate our homes each Halloween, much of the symbolism we use in our Halloween décor has its roots in ancient folklore found deep in history.
Popular Halloween Decorating Symbols and Their Origins
The Halloween Jack-o-Lantern has long been one of the most popular, traditional and abiding symbols used in annual Halloween decorating. In our modern day, the Jack-o-Lantern is traditionally carved from a pumpkin with a face inscribed into the gourd’s flesh that may vary from the most frightful stare to something far sillier or even comical. A modern Jack-o-Lantern
is used primarily as a Halloween décor item, but in ancient days these traditional lanterns may have served a far more practical purpose. Ancient Halloween lore speaks of scary faces being carved into turnips, used by villagers to jack olanternlight their way and also as deterrents that were thought to ward off evil spirits. Nowadays, Jack-o-Lanterns are usually placed out on the stoop in order to mischievously greet trick or treaters and cast a flickering, spooky glow for that perfect Halloween night ambience.
There is quite a bit of folklore and history regarding the origin of the Jack-o-Lantern. One popular legend speaks of a cranky and drunken prankster name Jack, who enjoyed playing mean spirited jokes on his fellow villagers. One day, being bored with the locals, Jack decided to play a trick on the devil himself. Conning and then trapping the devil up in the branches of a tall tree, Jack refused to let the devil down and used crosses and other religious symbols to keep him holed up in the leafy treetop. Jack, being a dimwitted opportunist, decided to make a deal with the devil. Jack would release the devil from the tree only if the devil in return would promise that no matter how bad his behavior ever was, he would never take his soul into hell. The devil agreed. When Jack finally died, his enduringly evil lifestyle had negated any opportunity for him to enter heaven, and yet the devil was true to his promise and did not take Jack into hell. Jack’s soul was forced to roam the earth for eternity. As a final gesture of wicked altruism, the devil tossed Jack an ember to burn in a turnip as he eternally wandered the earth on his endless journey. In this moment, the first Jack-o-Lantern was born.
The skeleton has been associated with Halloween and Halloween decorating for thousands of years, the skull being viewed by the Celtic people as the house of the soul. If you go very far back into history, it was thought that during the days surrounding the celebration of Samhain, the dead had the ability to return to roam the earth and mingle amongst the living during these festivities. Dressing up to appear dead, the local villagers would don any costume or mask that would effectively ward off any potentially evil spirits. You can bet that the look of a skeleton would most certainly have been preferred for this task because of its gaunt, very deathlike appearance.
The skeleton or skull has long been used as a universal symbol that represents mortality, illness, danger or death. When a person is living, their bones are a support mechanism that holds together the flesh of the human body. After death, the skeletal remains are often all that is left of the human who once lived. The skeleton is often used during the Halloween season as a popular decoration, as it is a frightening reminder of human mortality and a clear symbol of humanity’s fear of dying.
Ghosts are likely one of the oldest and most authentic of all the Halloween symbols. Ancient folklore taught that during the celebratory time that was the precursor to our modern-day Halloween, spirits of the newly deceased would be out and about at the dawn of winter, intermingling with the living however they liked. Because the lines between life and death were considered to be somewhat blurred during these early Halloween festivities and spirits were thought to be out in full force, the idea of a seeing a ghost on Halloween would not have been considered all that far fetched.
As time went on, many of the traditions of Halloween went along with it and many of these traditions are still a huge part of Halloween celebrating in our modern day. Today dressing up in Halloween costumes that appear to be ghostly beings is a very fun and popular way to get into the spooky spirit of Halloween. Telling ghost stories and tales of the paranormal
is also a favorite activity done at Halloween time. When it comes to Halloween decorating, the use of ghosts, ghostly-looking beings or even pseudo-apparitions is a great way to set a truly scary scene that is perfect for the Halloween season.
The black cat has long been a symbol of bad luck as well as it being a very commonly used Halloween decorating symbol. The black cat has a bit of an evil reputation going as far back as the time of the middle ages. During this time, the black cat was often associated with witches, witchcraft or even the devil himself. The black cat was often thought to be the witches familiar or sidekick--and in those days, being in cahoots with a witch was definitely not a good thing, especially when suspected witches were being burned at the stake or being hung in the gallows! Sometimes black cats were said to be gifts to witches from Satan; others went as far to say that the black cat was the devil himself in disguise.
The witch has been heavily associated with Halloween for hundreds of years. The cackling, brew-making old hag image of the witch, however is probably mostly created from fiction although some say she may be representative of the Triple Pagan Goddess "the Crone”
. Before Christianity came to Europe and people began to be converted, there had been wise women amongst the pagans who were well versed in the use of plants and herbs as a way to treat sicknesses and disease. When Catholicism came to town, the hierarchy of the church wasn’t so keen on these gals of medicine, and considered any woman of power and knowledge a threat to the church. Anything and everything was done to tarnish the reputations of these once helpful women, including associating them with devil worship and other evil doing. The common man would eventually become very fearful of these women (now labeled as witches) and only the bravest of souls would seek these healers out, doing so in utter secrecy.
As part of creating a completely evil persona surrounding the witch and her witchcraft, embellished stories and folklore were told and then repeated for decades about women who cast evil spells on others and created brews and elixirs that would serve the devil’s malevolent purposes. The witch would supposedly concoct her sinful potions in her simmering cauldron. Rumors also ran amok with even crazier ideas such as poisonous substances or hallucinogens being placed on broomsticks that supposed witches would then ride with their nether regions as a faster means of getting the toxins (hallucinogens) into their bodies. Although the supposed witch wasn’t actually flying, the sensation that the hallucinogenic drug supplied was often something that simulated the sensation of flying to the person using it. These “flying ointments”
and the very unconventional way of applying them may have been the origin of where the notion of the witch on the broomstick came from, but this classic image of the witch has stuck with us regardless and the witch is still one of the most popular Halloween decorating symbols out there.
Now what does a innocuous little flying rodent have to do with Halloween anyway? Like many other traditional Halloween symbols, the bat’s history with Halloween goes back deep into ancient days. Long before Halloween was Halloween and the ancient Celts were celebrating the holiday known as Samhain, part of the festivities happened around great bonfires. Bonfires were built to dance around and were also part of the animal sacrifices that were made to the pagan gods the Celts worshipped and felt were responsible for their bounty. Bonfires of course, naturally attract a lot of bugs; so at night while these large bonfires were burning brightly while the villagers were celebrating, bugs of all kinds were attracted to the light and were flying around in great abundance. The local bat population was clearly not dingbats, and when they saw an opportunity for a good feeding frenzy, they were all too happy to take full advantage of it. The bats came out to eat the bugs; it’s as simple as that. Bats have been associated with Halloween ever since. The connection between Halloween and bats probably got an extra boost when the rumored “flying ointment” that was purported to be enjoyed by evil witches was said to contain bat’s blood as one of its ingredients.
Once Spanish explorers discovered vampire bats
in the 17th century, the bat’s reputation and association with darkness became further intensified. Gruesome and likely embellished tales of these blood-drinking creatures were passed on and retold. The truth is, this particular variety of bat does indeed eat the blood of livestock and various animals, lapping it up like a little kitten would lap up a saucer full of milk.
Rumors of vampires and other vampire-like nocturnal monsters had already been running amok back in ancient days, so to behold an actual living, breathing animal that was exhibiting this morbid behavior was quite appalling to these generally very superstitious generation of people. It was likely only a matter of time before this creature became associated with some of the other rumored monsters of the time period, namely vampires. When Bram Stoker
wrote his infamous horror classic novel, “Dracula,”
the connection was forever solidified in the pages of his book as in the story, Dracula was often known to disguise himself conveniently as a vampire bat.
What is it about this spindly, web-weaving creature that goes so perfectly with Halloween? Obviously, there is that definite creep factor which sort of goes without saying, but why have spiders and spider webs become so much an intrinsic part of Halloween decorating? Come Halloween time, you can nary walk a block without seeing someone’s home or yard completely bedecked in pretend spider webbing with all sorts of fake spiders strategically placed within it. As it turns out, spiders have long been viewed as a bit of a mystical, supernatural creature. Spiders are creepy looking for sure and some of them can even kill you. This nefarious reputation has earned the spider a much earned, honorable spot in the Halloween symbols scariest list. Besides, what kind of a haunted house, graveyard or crypt isn’t simply loaded with old cobwebs? Spiders and their dusty leavings simply make everything seem scarier.
The Halloween color scheme has long been considered to be orange and black. Orange represents the color of the harvest and the color black is the color representing death. Since the origins of Halloween celebrate both the harvest as well as honoring the newly deceased, it seems logical then that orange and black would be the perfect color choices to represent the festivities.
Symbols of the Fall Harvest:
In addition to an entire cast of scary characters and images that are popular during the celebration of Halloween, there are also those autumn symbols that are a little bit more innocuous and benign, but still remain ever popular for use as part of our annual Halloween décor. Scarecrows, cornhusks, fall leaves, dried wheat, pumpkins and other gourds--all these items and many more fall themed symbols are commonly used to add a colorful and appropriate autumnal touch to fall and Halloween decorating.
Types of Halloween Decorations
There is a very wide array of Halloween decorations found out in today’s marketplace. Depending on what type of Halloween display you are setting up and who is going to see it, the styles of decorations you can buy really do run the gamut. From cute and whimsical to quite ghastly and almost sickening, Halloween decorations can be found to suit most anyone’s decorating needs.
Halloween decorations that hang from various structures are especially effective when it comes to creating a spooky and ghostly effect. A hanging prop can look as though it is floating almost like an apparition or can be put someplace unexpected to create a little bit of extra scare factor. Hanging props can be easily hung at eye level to make sure that your visitors visualize them more readily, creating a bigger impact as well.
A scary Halloween ambience is easy to create with a little bit of quick wall transformation. Everyday photos and pictures can be replaced with scary, haunted and ghoulish pictures. Spider webbing can be draped and hung from corners and small spaces. Clever poster-like wall coverings can instantly transform an ordinary room into a mad scientist’s laboratory
or create the look of a haunted house.
There are times when only the most macabre and grisly Halloween decorations are going to work when setting up a spooky or terrifying Halloween scene. Haunted houses, spook alleys and other such places are expected to have some pretty gnarly looking, not to mention hideous décor pieces lying about that are designed to both scare as well as send shivers down most anyone’s spine. Gruesome-looking fake body parts, monstrous beings, rodents, ravens and bats, ghastly zombies, mummies, black cats or even an insidiously scary clown or two--all these and many more Halloween décor items can be a huge part of creating those extra gruesome special effects that at Halloween time, most everyone loves.
Yard or Outdoor Décor:
Decorating the outside of your home for Halloween is almost more important that decorating the inside. These days, there are all sorts of Halloween decorations that are designed specifically for outdoor use and will quickly transform the look of your ordinary home into something that appears a lot more eerie and frightful. Tombstones and coffins
can transform your yard into a makeshift graveyard, while giant and colorful inflatable decorations can make a bold and whimsical statement that your entire neighborhood can appreciate for Halloween.
Lighted Halloween Decorations:
Decorations that use light are a popular way to decorate your home for Halloween. Imagine a row of illuminated skulls marking the pathway up to your front door? Or how about a pair of eerie, glowing eyes staring at you from the face of one of the creepiest monsters you’ve ever seen? From lanterns, light strings and lamps to ghastly lighted freaks that are meant to scare, or even the use of black or strobe lights to set that perfect frightening Halloween mood--the use of lighting is an effective way to create an extra scary sort of Halloween fun.
Halloween decorating, an ancient tradition that continues to be very popular now in our modern day. Although the specifics of what we use to decorate our homes and yards every Halloween may be far different than those things used by our ancient forefathers, many of the old symbols and traditions that the ancients embraced will be a part of our modern day Halloween customs forevermore. From ancient man reveling in the Samhain festivities thousands of years ago, to the much more modern Halloween celebrations of today, at Halloween time, the one thing you can always count on is that there has always been something a little bit scary out there, lurking silently in the dark.