While Halloween conjures up images of smiling jack-o-lanterns and bed-sheet ghosts, the origins of this fun and frightening night are serious in nature. Many of our modern Halloween traditions have roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween or Sow-In), which took place at the end of October. On Samhain night, the souls of those who had died in the past year were judged, and spirits of the dead were able to mingle with the living.
While some practices kept ghosts and spirits at bay, others were performed to attract mates and secure health. Here are a few Halloween beliefs that sprung from the garden:
With little understanding of medicine and basic hygiene, death was a constant threat. Many Halloween rituals were performed to keep people safe and healthy for another year.
- Beets and turnips: In England, lanterns carved out of beets, turnips, potatoes and other vegetables were placed in the window and illuminated with a burning coal or candle. The light from these simple lanterns not only scared away evil spirits, they also welcomed the spirits of loved ones. Once settlers arrived in North America, they embraced the large and easy-to-carve pumpkin, which became today's jack-o'-lantern.
- Garlic: Centuries before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, people wore or ate garlic to ward off vampires. Despite its roots in folklore, modern research shows garlic is effective in repelling ticks, mosquitoes, fleas—and other people. So why shouldn't it work on a passing vampire?
- Rosemary and thyme: These herbs were thought to bring sweet dreams and protection. Placed under a pillow, either one of these herbs would keep evil spirits and the corresponding bad dreams at bay. Rosemary hung on doors would deter thieves, while burning thyme could purge a room of evil spirits.
Since the worlds of the quick and the dead (or rather the living and the dead) could mingle on this night, it was an ideal time to peek into the future. Because bountiful crops and well-made marriages were the key to survival, many customs focused on fertility.
- Apples have been a symbol of fertility throughout history, but Halloween's close association with apples likely came from the Ancient Romans who invaded Great Britain. Today, we bob for apples for fun, but originally the first woman to bite the buoyant fruit would be the next to marry. If that wasn't specific enough, you could peel an apple in one continuous piece and toss the peel over your shoulder. When it landed, it would form the first initial of your future husband.
- Salvia (Salvia divinorum), also called diviner's sage, was associated with immortality and visions. Unlike harmless rosemary and thyme, salvia has mood-altering properties and sometimes caused hallucinations.
- Hazelnuts: Halloween is sometimes called Nut-crack night because hazelnuts were used to predict romance. Whether roasted in a pan or placed directly in the fire, the way the nuts burned was believed to foretell the closeness and endurance of a love match.