I’ve always liked Halloween. Perhaps it’s because I like being someone I am not or because I am glad for the changing seasons and the tendency towards inward focus. As are most holidays, Halloween involves a blend of Christian and Pagan rituals. The Christian holiday is All Saints Day and All Souls Day when Christians celebrate and honor their dead. The Pagan holiday is Samhain or the Celtic Feast of the Dead and the Celtic new year. On Halloween night it is said the veil between the worlds of the living and dead is lifted and spirits are able to visit the earth. Because of this inherent danger many rituals have developed to protect oneself from any spirit that may mean harm. The foremost ritual being wearing a costume or camouflage of sorts so as to not be recognized.
My favorite herb of Halloween is Calendula or Mary’s Gold used to honor the Virgin Mary. It is a protective herb and is used in the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. Calendula with its bright, sunny appearance is placed either on a home altar or at the cemetery to help a deceased loved one find their way to living family members. Calendula also symbolizes grief that we may feel. Since Calendula is not native to Mexico, it is likely one of the Tagetes species was traditionally used as ‘marigold’.
Apples symbolize Halloween as they ripen this time of year. They are a symbol of love and fertility. It is said that the first girl to be able to bite an apple while bobbing would marry during the coming year.
Pumpkin is probably the most used symbol of Halloween. Although there are many stories about the jack-o’lantern the one I like goes like this:
Jack was a stingy, greedy man who was also fond of playing tricks on the devil. The devil’s revenge was to condemn Jack to walk the earth with only a lantern for light until Judgment day. In Ireland this lantern was made in a turnip, but the tradition changed to a pumpkin in the US because their larger size was more desirable. I grew turnips this year and might give the turnip lantern a try.
Many of the herbs were used during the Halloween season in the Middle Ages for protection and to cast away evil spirits. Among these are:
• Juniper which can be laid at the front door to deter witches and bad spirits.
• Rue, once called the “herb of grace of Sundays” was hung from doorways to ward off witches and spells. It was also used as protection from the plague during the Middle Ages. Branches of rue were sometimes used to sprinkle holy water in the Catholic Mass, now pine branch is the preferred method.
• St. John’s wort was hung at windows to keep evil spirits from entering the house.
• Rosemary, so called because it is the “Rose of Mary” was put over the cradle of babies for protection as well as under pillows.
Belladonna (Atropa belladonna) was said to be used as a ‘flying ointment’ by some. An extract of this herb absorbed through the skin gave the user a feeling of flying or astral projection. This herb however can be deadly and should not be used.
My Halloweens of the past 17 years have consisted of trick or treating with my children. I love trick or treating as it seems a good ‘neighborhood’ ritual; time to check in with neighbors for a short chat before everyone closes themselves in for the winter. I also typically have a fire in the grill and let the kids cook hot dogs (veggie dogs) over the fire. This is reminiscent of the ancient Celtic bonfires.
This may be the last year for trick or treat as my children are older so new traditions may arise next year; but bonfires are always fun!
Have a happy and safe Halloween.