Romance and Fear: Halloween’s Lost Traditions

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Halloween is known for its tricks and treats, the spooky costumes, and haunting tunes, but once upon a time, it was much akin to Valentine’s Day. As recently as the mid-20th century, Halloween wasn’t a night of frights alone, but rather it revolved around the possibility of finding love.

   Halloween is a warped amalgamation of many celebratory days, most notably the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”) that welcomed the end of the summer harvest season; people would light bonfires, feast, and wear costumes to ward off malevolent spirits. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st “All Saints Day,” which soon incorporated Samhain traditions. The night before All Saints Day quickly became known as All Hallows Eve and eventually Halloween. Due to colonization and conquests throughout the ages, it is sometimes difficult to understand where certain traditions stem from; however, the fair majority of today’s practices go back to the Celtics and Romans, as the Romans conquered the British isles in 43 AD, and their Autumn festival honoring the goddess Pomona was merged into the Celtic’s Samhain.

   It is important to note that Pomona was the goddess of fruitfulness and abundance, most associated with the apple, which is where the game Bobbing for Apples comes from. This game, though sometimes referred to as Snap Apple, involves fishing for an apple floating in a pool of water with only one’s teeth; if successful on the first attempt, it was said that your true love reciprocated such feelings, though multiple failed attempts indicated an ill-suited match or a warning about one’s current interest. Another form of this game involved peeling the skin of an apple and throwing it in a pool of water-the peel was said to resemble the first initial of an ideal suitor or love interest (Though what is the probability of an apple peel landing in the shape of a K or a Z naturally, seems rigged). Another variation of this tradition involved eating an apple in front of a mirror to manifest the image of one’s soul mate. The seeds even told your fortune, their number indicating good or bad luck in the near future. You can thank Pomona for candy apples to top off the list of apple-themed festivities.

   Other games played on Halloween similarly tied to Samhain and Pomona; Though known for her orchards of fruit, Pomona also cultivated nut groves; sometimes referred to as Nut Crack Night, Halloween once featured a savory game where chestnuts were placed on a stove or open flame, each representing a romantic partner. If the nuts fell close and burned with one another, the match was meant to be and happiness ensued, but if one of the nuts cracked, the love was proved capricious.

   Through the ages many of these traditions have been lost, but for good reason. Many festivities and parties were hosted by the womenfolk-wives and mothers, often trapped within the home and pressured to be ladylike-posh, prim, and proper. These games were based on the superstitious spiritual beliefs of ancient societies and the carefully cultivated social norms surrounding courting. Women were often the targets of these games, as they were the ones banking on good relationships; after all, they couldn’t go outside of marriage or leave one without being a social pariah or worse. The thrill of these games was based mainly on the fear of landing in a loveless, neglectful, or abusive relationship; if you were good enough at the game, you would seal your happy ending. Through time, women gained autonomy and agency over themselves (though, as of late, that is becoming debatable), causing these games to fall out of fashion as love became a choice and not a consequence of circumstance. As romance became less mysterious, Halloween had to up its game, leading to the gory, cobwebbed Devil’s Night we know and love today. So on Monday, when you’re walking to class, and you smell the cider in the air or step on a crisp, fallen leaf, remember the most frightening thing about Halloween is the idea of being in an accursed relationship. — Haley Berger


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