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12 (Mostly) Spooky Halloween Superstitions

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Many centuries before candy corn was invented, the ancient Celts celebrated Samhain on October 31, a night that marked the end of the year and the official start of winter. Samhain, which later became folded into Halloween, was also seen as a night when the dead returned to their former homes—or as the 1903 Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, Occult Sciences of the World puts it, "the night of all the year that spirits walked abroad and fairies were most bold." Plenty of folklore and superstition once accompanied this evening, and while much of it was concerned with romantic fortune-telling, some lore was significantly spookier. Here are a dozen tidbits from the Encyclopedia of Superstitions to get you in the Halloween mood.

1. In Wales, a disembodied spirit was thought to be sitting on every crossroad and stile on All Hallow’s Eve. (Stiles are small structures that allow humans but not animals to pass over fences.)

1. In the British Isles, it was said to be evil to eat blackberries after Halloween—because on that night “the spirit, called púca [Irish for ghost] comes out and defiles them.”

3. In Scotland, you can secure good luck for yourself by waving around the red-hot end of a fiery stick in certain “mystic figures” (the encyclopedia is unclear about which specific mystic figures are required).

4. Welsh families had an especially creepy bonfire tradition: After building a huge fire, each member of the family would throw in a small white stone they had marked in some way. The next morning, they'd search through the remains of the fire to find the stones. If one was missing, it meant that person wouldn't live to see another Halloween.

5. In the Western Isles, it was considered bad luck to leave your house on Halloween. (Don’t tell modern trick or treaters!)

6. On All-Hallow's Eve, the fishermen of the Orkney Islands made a cross on their boats with tar for good luck. If they weren't successful, they sprinkled " forespoken water" over their boats.

7. Norman seamen who ventured out to sea on Halloween "were said to have the 'double sight,' that is, each one beheld a living likeness of himself seated in close contact, and if he was engaged in any work, the phantom was doing the same."

8. Not all superstitions were spooky, apparently—some had to do with mundane health matters. In some Celtic lands, it was thought that if you eat a large apple under an apple tree at midnight on Halloween wearing only a bed sheet, you would never get a cold.

9. In the days before Weather.com, they thought that whatever direction a bull was facing while lying down on Halloween was the direction from which the wind would blow for most of the winter.

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10. Children born on Halloween were said to have the "power to see spirits and converse with fairies."

11. As late as the 17th century, it was customary for farmers in Scotland and elsewhere to walk around their fields with a lighted torch, singing or chanting a piece of doggerel verse, in order to protect their fields from harm.

12. Halloween was once called "Witches' Night" or the "Devil's Sunday," and was thought to be the occasion for a major celebration led by His Satanic Majesty. Witches were said to leave sticks in their beds to fool their husbands, and then ride to the festivities on broomsticks anointed with the fat of murdered unbaptized infants—or, failing that, a cat. "All Scotch boys will remember how tired the cats were the day after Hallowe'en," the Encyclopedia of Superstitions and Folklore writes. "Some pitied their miserable appearance; others were mad at them for carrying the witches."

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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holidays
10 Things You Might Not Know About Chinese New Year
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Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning February 16, China will welcome the Year of the Dog, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. THE HOLIDAY WAS ORIGINALLY MEANT TO SCARE OFF A MONSTER.

Nian at Chinese New Year
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As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A LOT OF FAMILIES USE IT AS MOTIVATION TO CLEAN THE HOUSE.

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While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. IT WILL PROMPT BILLIONS OF TRIPS.

Man waiting for a train.
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Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. IT INVOLVES A LOT OF SUPERSTITIONS.

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While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. SOME PEOPLE RENT BOYFRIENDS OR GIRLFRIENDS TO SOOTHE PARENTS.

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In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. RED ENVELOPES ARE EVERYWHERE.

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An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. IT CAN CREATE RECORD LEVELS OF SMOG.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
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Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. BLACK CLOTHES ARE A BAD OMEN.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
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So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. IT LEADS TO PLANES BEING STUFFED FULL OF CHERRIES.

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Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand—last year Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. PANDA EXPRESS IS HOPING IT'LL CATCH ON IN THE STATES.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
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Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

A version of this story originally ran in 2017.

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