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You’ve probably seen witches and black cats associated with Halloween roughly thirty times today. Jack-O-Lanterns, bats, ghosts, and skeletons are all symbols famously related to Halloween, but did you ever wonder where these associations originated? Here are five Halloween symbols and their histories.

1. Witches

Witches

Halloween, as we know it today, stems from a variety of cultures and celebrations. One of those holidays is “Samhain,” (pronounced sah-win), a term that translates as “summer’s end.” Celtic people celebrated (and some continue to celebrate) Samhain from sunset on October 31st to sunrise on November 1st. They honored the start of the pagan new year, the Fall harvest, and their deceased with bonfires and feasts. During the Middle Ages, the people that still celebrated this pagan holiday were often accused of being witches. Witch hunters believed that on this night, the veil between worlds thinned, and magical energy increased, making witches extremely powerful.

2. Black Cats

Black Cats

The black cat’s association with Halloween also stems from the Middle Ages. Many of the witches accused of witchcraft fed the wild cat population or had pet cats themselves. These women’s cats, deemed to be their “familiars,” or magical companions, were often killed after their owners. People mainly feared black cats because of their inky black coats that allowed them to move undetected in darkness and their piercing eyes. Rumors spread that black cats were witches’ servants or even disguised witches themselves, solidifying their association with witchcraft and Halloween.

Today, superstition against black cats still exists. They are only half as likely as white, grey, and tabby cats to be adopted and many never find homes at all. However, if you plan on adding a black cat to your family, you may be asked to wait. Some animal shelters do not adopt out black cats during October for fear that people will mistreat them.

3. Bats

Bats

Another famous Halloween symbol is the bat, and its association with the holiday goes back to Samhain’s roots. During the night’s ceremonies, large bonfires lit up the night sky to aid spirits in the afterlife and honor their passing. These large fires attracted hoards of flying insects, the prey of many bat species. During the cold nights of Autumn, bats are the most active, eating as much as possible to store fat for hibernation. Large swarms of distracted insects attracted bats, and they became associated with the ceremony.

Unfortunately, you may be seeing fewer bats this Halloween due to habitat destruction, development, and white-nose syndrome, a disease with a 90-100% mortality rate that affects populations in 31 states.

4. Ghosts and Skeletons

Ghosts

Samhain and the Christian holiday, All Hallow’s Eve or All Saints Day, both deemed the night of October 31st the best time to honor the deceased. During Samhain, it was believed that the veil between the living and dead thinned, allowing spirits to cross over to our realm. Practitioners left food offerings outside for wandering spirits and prepared a plates at their dinner table for deceased loved ones. Participants in All Hallow’s Eve sang hymns and lit candles for family members that passed on. Icons of the dead, ghosts and skeletons, represent these traditions and beliefs today.

5. Jack-O-Lanterns

Jack O

Oddly enough, the Irish carved the first Jack-O-Lanterns out of turnips, not pumpkins, to frighten evil spirits from their homes on Samhain. Jack-O-Lanterns got their name in the 17th century from an Irish folktale called “Stingy Jack,” a tale about a drunkard who attempted to the con the Devil. When Jack failed, the Devil sentenced him to an afterlife traveling between planes with only the light of a smoldering ember inside a carved turnip, and he was nicknamed “Jack of the Lantern.” Once the Irish brought their traditions to North America, people began to use the more common and easier to carve pumpkins in place of turnips.

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Emily Herschl
Emily is a freelance writer and artist inspired by the natural world and the human mind. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2015 with a degree in Environmental Studies, and loves coffee shops, snuggling with her rescued Pit Bull, and cracking jokes. Find samples of her writing and artwork on her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @emilyherschl

Website: emilyherschl.com
Instagram: @emilyherschl
Twitter: @emilyherschl