[Reader, if you keep rabbits or own a black cat, see what you can do to keep these animals safe in the days leading up to Halloween. It is a sad fact that imbeciles intoxicated with devilish lore have been known to torture and kill animals on Halloween.]
Halloween is an ancient harvest festival that was blended with autumn rites of the Druids. From the early days of Rome came the tradition of celebrating the harvest by roasting nuts and apples in front of bonfires. This custom was adopted by the people of the British Isles, and they probably started the game of ducking for apples.
The Druids set bonfires too, beginning at midnight on October 31. They were more concerned with fending off evil spirits than roasting treats. They believed their god of death, Saman, called souls of the departed back to their homes on October 31. Souls of wicked people were believed to inhabit the bodies of animals which prowled in the night. Everyone knows that black cats were thought to be the companions of witches, but white rabbits were more feared. Rascals and cads believed that October 31 was a time of reckoning, when ghostly rabbits haunted the darkness.
In English folklore, the specter of a white rabbit, or hare, was an avenging spirit that punished charlatans for their mistreatment of humble people. Robert Hunt collected a version of the tale in which a young woman was romanced and then callously abandoned by a farmer. The farmer’s treachery led to the young woman’s death, and the story continued:
“Everything now went wrong in the farm, and the young [farmer] suddenly left it and went into another part of the country.
“Still nothing prospered, and gradually he took to drink to drown some secret sorrow. He was more frequently on the road by night than by day; and, go where he would, a white hare was constantly crossing his path. The white hare was often seen by others, almost always under the feet of his horse; and the poor terrified animal would go like the wind to avoid the strange apparition.
“One morning the young farmer was found drowned in a forsaken mine; and the horse, which had evidently suffered extreme terror, was grazing near the corpse. Beyond all doubt the white hare, which is known to hunt the perjured and the false-hearted to death, had terrified the horse to such a degree, that eventually the rider was thrown into the mine-waste in which the body was found.”
People loved such grim tales, and turned a church holiday to honor saints and martyrs into a festival of creepy notions that grows bigger by the decade. The saints of the Christian church had been remembered annually on November 1, and Pope Gregory IV made All Saints’ Day an official holiday in 837. In England, the day was known as All Hallows, and the evening before was called Hallowed (or Holy) Eve. The name was shortened, and now we know it as Halloween.
While prudent people stayed close to their fireplaces on All Hallows Eve, rowdy youths dared to go out and pester their nervous neighbors. This began the tradition of playing pranks on Halloween. Even the youths stayed away from graveyards, however. They believed that spirits of the dead wandered the earth on Halloween, and that meeting up with one brought certain death.
Halloween provides an example of mankind’s appetite for stories about ghosts and monsters. Thanks to a morbid streak in the human imagination, it has persisted while many other old-time festivals have vanished.