Tales from the Shack: A Super Natural History of Halloween
We celebrate Halloween every year on the 31st of October, but what are we celebrating and how did some things in our natural history become associated?
The Halloween tradition came from the Celtic festival of Samhain when bonfires would be lit and costumes worn in the hope of warding off spirits of the dead which were thought to return to the living world on that night. Meanwhile, back in the 8th Century, Pope Gregory III made November 1st the day to honour all saints. It wasn’t long before All Saint’s Day became part of the Samhain tradition, with the evening before known as All Hallows Eve and later Halloween.
Next came then Romans…well they had to show up somewhere…with two festivals that became entwined with Samhain, the first, Feralia (in late October) at which the passing of the dead was commemorated, the second was to honour Pomona the goddess of fruit and trees, as her symbol is the apple this probably explains the tradition of ‘apple bobbing’ at Halloween.
The Broomstick, also called a Besom, was traditionally made out of a Birch tree bough and its fine twigs. There are several different theories as to why broomsticks became associated with witches.
In medieval times a women would let her neighbours know she wasn’t at home by leaving her broomstick by the back door or peeping out of the chimney, leading to the belief she must have flown up the chimney and, therefore, was a witch.
In pagan ceremonies in Europe people would mount a broomsticks and ride them, like horses, across fields to encourage a bountiful harvest and with witchcraft becoming more prevalent, the broomstick became more associated with the witch. Artists at the time portrayed them flying, with said broomstick, through the night sky. This leads to the tricky subject of why witches fly, well, they were partial to anointing their broomsticks and certain parts of their anatomy, that being armpits of course, with potions that had a hallucinatory effect and lead to the feeling of flying…the connection is made!!
The Pumpkin tradition (safer grounds here) stems from the festival of Samhain, marking the transition from summer’s plenty to dark winter. Fairy spirits were thought to lurk in the shadows at this time of year and to deter them from entering house and farm, people would carve faces onto turnips, hollow them out and place a candle inside. These were called Jack-o-Lanterns because of the flickering light, similar to that seen over peat bogs and caused by the spontaneous combustion of marsh gases, this phenomena is also given the name Jack-o-Lanterns or Will-o’-the Wisp.
With the arrival of many Scottish and Irish settlers on American shores in the mid 1800’s, the indigenous Pumpkin won out over the more humble turnip and the scene was set, so by the 1920’s
America had fully embraced Halloween with parties, pumpkins costumes and finally ‘trick or treat’, then it all got shipped back over here…hooray/groan!
Finally, Halloween and witches wouldn’t be the same without the Black Cat. In Norse mythology the goddess Freyja rode in a chariot pulled by magical cats, she was also in charge of the afterlife and practiced witchcraft herself. Cats are known to be creatures of the night and consequently associated with the darker side of things, so the Black Cat was the colour of choice. Witches were believed to have ‘familiars’ or animal companions including dogs, cats, mice and toads. An unfortunate consequence of this happened back in the days when witches were hunted, if the poor old cat was caught as well it often endured the same fate… not a purrfect ending! …but put these three snippets together and we go some way to seeing the Black cats association with Halloween.
Natures Calendar: October
October is the month we usually see the first frosts and large Atlantic storms with rainfall usually up by a third on September and average temperatures around the 14°c mark. It is a month of flux for the weather and for wildlife in equal measures, the last real month to fatten up on nuts and berries before the onset of winter. Hedgehogs will be building their winter shelter called a hibernaculum.
On quiet nights you may hear the sounds of migratory birds flying overhead, especially the Redwings and Fieldfares. Usually a shy bird, the Jay becomes more conspicuous as it gathers and stores acorns within its territory, a single Jay may gather up to 3,000 acorns.
Mute Swan cygnets will now have to fend for themselves as the parents start to drive them away as they, themselves come into condition for the next breeding season. The juveniles will form local flocks and stay within them until they start breeding when 3-4 years old.
Although this month usually sees the last of our butterflies, the Autumn moths are coming into their own and two in particular are masters of camouflage, the Frosted Orange will be hard to spot amongst the leaves as they take on their Autumn hues and try spotting the Merveille du Jour (Marvel of the Day) as it rest on a lichen covered tree.
One thing we don’t see in the natural world is the vast complex web of fungal mycelium that exists below ground, but come Autumn the splendours of that web burst forth for all to see as what, you and me, call Mushrooms and Toadstools. Although you will find some species at different times of the year, this is the season of abundance, enjoyed by many a forager…but beware, make sure you know what you are gathering or you might find yourself grabbing a broomstick and pointy hat and taking off on a night flight on a fright night …Spooky!