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Ghouls, goblins, saints part of Halloween

The custom of carving jack-o-lanterns may have actually come from the Gaelic ritual of creating lanterns out of large, hollowed turnips.

The custom of carving jack-o-lanterns may have actually come from the Gaelic ritual of creating lanterns out of large, hollowed turnips.

ALBANY -- It's about the only time of the year when one can show up to work in a gorilla costume and not get a second glance.

Yet, outside of the trick-or-treating or the dressing up, few know the history behind Halloween, or why people even celebrate it.

To really delve into Halloween lore, we start, at History.com, where one can find just about all of the information about all things history.

According to that website, Halloween, like many holidays, is really an amalgamation of beliefs from several cultures and religions, all rolled into a modern version of customs that has roots that go back more than 1,700 years.

According to many historians, modern-day Halloween has its beginnings in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain.

Ironically, the word Samhain means "1 November" in Gaelic and is noted as being a festival of the harvest and for remembering the dead in Ireland, Scotland and parts of Britain, going back at least to 7th century.

In Ireland, the night of Samhain was celebrated on Oct. 31 and observed the reaping of the final harvest before winter. According to Wikipedia, it's still customary in parts of Ireland and Scotland to leave a place for the dead at the table during the Samhain feast.

In some areas, Gaelic celebrations of Samhain also involved dressing in costume or in masks in the belief that such practices ward off evil spirits. Scottish men would actually impersonate the dead by wearing masks or blackening their faces and wearing all white.

In the 16th century, Guisers -- people who dressed up in disguise -- became popular in Scotland during the festival.

This practice of "guising" and pranks, which involved children going door-to-door dressed in masks and costumes, continues on today.

The custom of carving Jack-o-Lanterns may have actually come from the Gaelic ritual of creating lanterns out of large, hollowed turnips. In Scotland, people would carve faces into these turnips and place them in the windows of their homes to ward off evil spirits.

According to History.com, the celts believed that the period between Samhain and the actual start of their new year in November was a time when spirits could cross between the afterlife and Earth.

Some Celts believed that, in addition to being mischievous, the spirits also helped their priests make predictions about the natural world.

By 43 A.D. the Roman Empire had conquered most of the Celtic lands and, as oft happens in such scenarios, merged some of the Celtic traditions in with their own.

Two festivals were combined. The first, Feralia, was a day when Romans honored the dead. The second was a feast to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Some historians believe this may be where the custom of "bobbing for apples" enters into the holiday festivities.

In 609 A.D., the first real Christian foundations entered into the mix.

It was then when Pope Boniface IV christened the Pantheon in Rome in the name of all of the Christian martyrs and began an annual feast known as "All Martyrs Day" in the Western church.

Later, in the 8th century, Pope Gregory III moved the feast from May to Nov. 1 and renamed it All Saints' Day, in honor of the Catholic saints who were honored along with the martyrs of the church.

This All Saints Day" was also known as All hallows or Alholowmesse -- in middle English -- which is how the day before -- "All Hallow's Eve" or Hallow "een" -- got its name.

In America, Halloween didn't catch on very fast in the puritanical New England colonies, but in the middle and Southern colonies it did.

According to History.com, the first celebrations were known as "play parties," in which folks would celebrate the harvest and tell stories of dead loved ones and, like the current traditions, mischief and ghost stories were a part of the festivities.

So where do black cats, broken mirrors, ghouls and all of the other superstitious stuff come from?

All over, of course.

The black cat myth is believed to have come from the Middle Ages when being a witch was more than just dressing up. It was a capital offense. Witches were believed to possess the ability to turn themselves into cats -- black cats, specifically.

According to the "Dictionary of Superstitions" by David Pickering, mirrors have often been viewed as having the ability to temporarily capture one's soul. So if a mirror is broken, the one who owns the reflection is not only at risk of encountering harm themselves, but losing their soul.

Triskaidekaphobia is the formal name for the fear of the number 13. While it's not specifically linked to Halloween, the superstition is so ingrained in our culture that many tall buildings don't have a 13th floor. Some believe this superstition is derived from Norse mythology when 12 "good" gods were gathering and were attacked by the malicious god Loki -- who was guest No. 13.

Many superstitions surrounding Halloween have largely been forgotten, but according to History.com, back in the day, people believed some really interesting things.

For instance, in Ireland, some soothsayers would get a woman to write the name of each of her suitors onto hazelnuts and toss them into the fire. The one that burned to ashes rather than popping would be her true love.