Among the many famous symbols of Halloween, the black hat wearing, broomstick riding witch is sure to come to mind.
After all, the witch is a classic costume for both children and adults and is constantly seen throughout the holiday festivities. Yet, the witch harbors a history with many conflicting connotations that have not always been celebrated.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “witch” is derived from the word “wicca,” which essentially meant “wise one.” Many centuries ago, when the practice of medicine was scarce, contracting an illness was one of the worst things that could happen to somebody because it would likely lead to death. In an effort to treat some of the common illnesses, groups of women used their knowledge of herbs to heal the sick. Throughout the villages, they became to be referred to as the wise women.
However, when Christianity started to spread throughout Europe, many leaders found the practices of the wise women to be a form of heresy due to two reasons: one, they did not like the fact that women were practicing medicine; and two, many felt that treating a God-given illness was an act of going against God. As the years progressed, the practice of witchcraft was labeled with negative connotations and made punishable by death in 1542.
From then on, if one was accused of being a witch, he or she would be executed in front of the public as a way to set an example that witchcraft would not be tolerated. This belief was carried into the New World, where the infamous Salem Witch Trials occurred on the outskirts of Salem, Massachusetts.
In the summer of 1692, when the village minister’s daughter and niece became ill with an unexplained, fever-like sickness that caused delusions and moments of unconsciousness, the village’s physician made the logical declaration that the young girls were bewitched. Because the village of Salem practiced the devout Puritan lifestyle, witchcraft was a threat that could tarnish everything that the pillars of the community valued. The threat worsened once more girls were experiencing the same symptoms.
Among the first to be arrested for the crime of witchcraft was the minister’s Caribbean slave, Tituba, along with two other village women. Forced to either admit to witchcraft or hang until death, Tituba not only admitted to being a witch but also accused others of practicing witchcraft, while the other two women denied the claims. The panic-induced outbreak resulted in over 150 men and women to be accused of witchcraft, and led to the hanging of 19 women, the stoning of one man and the death of two dogs by the time the trial ended in 1693.
Once the trials ended, history coined it to be one of the darkest events in the colonial times, as well as the introduction of the witch in America, which would grow to be one of the most famous symbols of Halloween. Although the New England colonies did not celebrate Halloween because of their religious values, Halloween was mainly celebrated in the southern colonies based off European beliefs of Halloween. It wasn’t until the 1800s that Halloween obtained a whole new meaning and became widely recognized and celebrated in America, though.
During the 1800s, the Great Potato Famine resulted in a flood of Irish immigrants coming to America, and accompanying them were the customs of Samhain. Many traditions of Halloween are derived from the ancient Celtic holiday, Samhain, which occurs on the 31st of October. Because this date falls in the middle of summer and winter, the Celtics honored both the living and dead during this time by having large bonfires and wearing costumes to ward off spirits. Throughout the centuries, Samhain influenced the Catholic holiday, All Saint’s Day, which honors saints and martyrs on the first of November. The day before that was called All Hallow’s Eve and eventually became known as Halloween.
Due to growing popularity, many children began dressing up as ghosts, ghouls and of course, witches, to celebrate the new holiday. In the early 1900s, Halloween first started to be commercialized into a holiday, where images of black pointed hats and broomsticks became a staple for holiday symbolism. Today, Halloween is recognized as the second most popular holiday in America and is celebrated throughout many parts of the world.