Beginning with Celts’ celebration of Samhain, and its transition to All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween has been the source of superstitions about marriage, luck, and death.
At its core, Halloween marks deep and abiding concerns about life and death itself, as well as a time of particular vulnerability. From fear of black cats crossing one’s path to dreaming of death, It’s no wonder that it’s a rich source of superstition and myth.
The Celts’ Celebration of Samhaim
Samhain (pr. sow-wen), literally translated as “summer’s end,” was celebrated by the Celts to mark the end of the harvest and of the “light.” Winter was the “dark” season, associated with hunger and death. In short, Halloween is a time that is associated with the harvest, fertility, and life and death itself.
Visitations of the Dead
Celts believed that on October 31, the Lord of Death (Saman) would call together all the souls that had died the previous year in order for them to travel to the afterlife. Bonfires were built to light the way for spirits to make their into the world of the living. All Souls Day, as defined by Christians, is the day on which all those who have died appear. These observances have led to speculations about visitations and what they portend, for example:
- If you happen to see a spider on Halloween Day, it is the spirit of a loved one watching over you.
- If you hear footsteps behind you on Halloween night, don’t turn around, because it’s the dead following you. If you turn around, you may end up dead soon
Omens of Death
Halloween is also associated with “signs” that someone has died or is about to, for example:
- Dreaming of death is an omen of death
- If a bird flies into the window of a sick person, it means the person will die soon
- If a bird flies into your house, it means someone has died
- If a clock that wasn’t working suddenly chimes, a family member has died
Relatedly, sneezing on Halloween is considered especially dangerous. According to the Welsh, when you sneeze, the soul leaves the body–essentially a fleeting pass at death. Saying “God Bless you,” originated from this superstition.
Halloween and Predictions of the Future
Halloween is a “marginal” time when distinctions such as past, present and future are blurred, and the veil between the living and the dead is thought to be at its thinnest. This makes it a propitious time for divining the future. A number of superstitions are related to omens predicting good luck or bad.
Halloween and Bad Luck
If you experience any of the following on Halloween, you will have bad luck:
- You hear three hoots of an owl, or hear a rooster crow at night
- You see a white cat, or the new moon over your left shoulder
- You put your shirt on inside-out
- You get out of bed left foot first
- You sing before breakfast (you’ll cry before dinner)
- You open an umbrella inside a building or house
Halloween and Good Luck
Experiencing any of these events on Halloween will bring you good luck:
- You sleep facing south
- The top of your head has an itch
- You pick up a piece of coal lying in your path
- A robin flies into your house
- You sneeze three times before breakfast
- You put on a dress inside out
- You dream of a white cat
- You hear a cat sneeze
Fertility and Bobbing for Apples
When sliced in half, the apple’s seeds form a pentagram, a symbol of fertility. This was the inspiration for the game of bobbing for apples, which was played by young people who came from distant farms and villages during the annual celebration of Samhain.
The first to bite into an apple floating in water or hanging from a string would be the next to marry. Variations on this included having to keep your hands behind your back while bobbing, or spearing the apple using a fork clenched in the teeth.
Glimpsing One’s Future Husband
An unmarried girl could see aspects of her future husband on Halloween Night by following certain steps. For example:
- If she caught a snail and locked it in a flat dish on Halloween night, the first letter of her sweetheart’s name would appear in the morning.
- Putting fresh rosemary and a silver coin under her pillow on Halloween would allow her to see her future husband in a dream that night.
- If she carried a broken egg in a glass and took it to a spring of water, she would be able to catch a glimpse of her future husband.
Halloween is a magical time, when boundaries of life and death are thin, and distinctions of time are blurred. In short, primal fears and mysteries of the human condition are at the heart of superstitions and myths surrounding Halloween. It’s not surprising that we are both fascinated and frightened by them, perpetuating them from one generation to the next.