Most people know that Halloween is a contraction for All Hallows’ Eve — a celebration observed in numerous countries on the evening before All Hallows’ Day (also known as All Saints’ Day). When something is hallowed, it is made holy. It’s consecrated, like hallowed ground. It’s also applied to something or someone who is greatly revered and honored, like a saint. In many countries, the days surrounding Halloween have been turned into a time to honor past ancestors. Why? According to Wikipedia, summer’s end and winter’s beginning marked “a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Other world thinned.” As a result, “Spirits … could more easily come into this world and were particularly active. … The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Places were set at the dinner table and by the fire to welcome them. The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year and must be appeased seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.” This begs the question: How did witches become associated with a holiday meant to honor holy people and departed ancestors?
Witches and Halloween
Before I begin this discussion, I need to acknowledge that there are practitioners of Pagan and Wiccan religions who are sometimes referred to as witches. These individuals are more likely trying to connect with the world around them than they are trying to contact the devil. They come from all walks of life and they are sincere in their beliefs. Witches associated with Halloween celebrations, however, are of a much different bent — they are associated with evil spirits. As noted above, the veil between the living and dead was thought to be very thin on All Hallows’ Eve, which meant both good and evil spirits could cross over. While the former spirits were welcomed, the latter spirits were not. History professor Stephanie Richmond (@profrichmond) reports, “One of the ways to ward off evil spirits, was to dress up like them or like scary things, including witches, so that you would blend in and be able to hide from actual evil things.”
Like most scholars, college student Meg Hanff (@HanffMeg) traces the history of witches and Halloween back to the time when Celts were being Christianized as was their Samhain or “summer’s end” celebration. She explains, “When the Romans conquered the Celts (who occupied most of Europe, but around 500 A.D. became concentrated around Northwestern Europe such as what we now know as Ireland, the United Kingdom, etc.), the holiday of Samhain from a Celtic tradition started to change as what we know today as Halloween or ‘All Hollows’ Eve.’ … The Celtic beliefs were seen as paganism, as what eventually ended up being Halloween, became interconnected with Witches and anything else that did not line up with certain monotheistic ideas. Because Witches were perceived as evil and otherworldly by Christians, they became associated with Halloween and the dead.”
Although warding off evil spirits is probably a good thing, Hanff reminds us that calling someone a witch has been an excuse for intolerance and torture for centuries. She explains, “Because the term ‘Witch’ was used so carelessly throughout history many have died from either being accused as one or because there is a belief that a natural occurrence (such as disease) is caused by them. In 1486, two German Dominicans wrote a book called ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ which translates to, ‘The Hammer of Witches,’ and was basically a guide on how to identify, hunt, and question Witches. The writing and publication of this book led to Witch hunts becoming amplified. Most of the women being accused were single, widowed, or those perceived as outcasts to society. Between the years 1500 and 1600, some up to 80,000 people suspected as Witches were put to death in Europe alone.”
The story of witches and Halloween wouldn’t be complete without a mention of their favorite companions — black cats. According to some Celtic traditions, individuals who practiced dark magic could be turned into cats. Journalist Rachel Brougham explains why cats became the favorite witch companion. She writes, “The cat was often seen as a companion of the witch. In addition, the relationship between certain animals — bats and owls for example — and Halloween come from the fact these animals are nocturnal and roam and hunt during the night hours so they are seen more often at dark than during the daylight.” Since black cats blend into the night, it’s little wonder they were singled out. The staff at Hartz.com explains that the Puritans had a role to play in this as well. They write, “The Puritan Pilgrims distrusted anything associated with witches and sorcery, including black cats. They actively persecuted black cats — it became a practice to burn black cats on Shrove Tuesday to protect the home from fire. After the anti-witch zeal had subsided in the colonies, black cats had been thoroughly cemented in popular legend right alongside witches.”
Although witches are often depicted as ugly and malformed, for over a century Halloween revelers have also dressed up as glamorous, often scantily clad, witches. Today, children are more likely to dress like a Marvel action figure or a Disney princess than they are as a witch. I’m just not sure how well today’s preferred costumes ward off evil spirits. Happy Halloween.
 Staff, “Of Witches, Women and Halloween,” Norfolk State University, 29 October 2019.
 Meg Hanff, “Witches: A Brief History of How They Became Associated with Halloween,” Her Campus, 29 October 2021.
 Rachel Brougham, “Witches, black cats and misunderstandings, the story of Halloween,” The Petoskey News-Review, 9 October 2014.
 Emily Spivack, “The Witches of Halloween Past,” Smithsonian Magazine, 26 October 2012.