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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.

Spooky forest with full orange-colored moon
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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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Yes, You Can Put Your Christmas Decorations Up Now—and Should, According to Psychologists
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We all know at least one of those people who's already placing an angel on top of his or her Christmas tree while everyone else on the block still has paper ghosts stuck to their windows and a rotting pumpkin on the stoop. Maybe it’s your neighbor; maybe it’s you. Jolliness aside, these early decorators tend to get a bad rap. For some people, the holidays provide more stress than splendor, so the sight of that first plastic reindeer on a neighbor's roof isn't exactly a welcome one.

But according to two psychoanalysts, these eager decorators aren’t eccentric—they’re simply happier. Psychoanalyst Steve McKeown told UNILAD:

“Although there could be a number of symptomatic reasons why someone would want to obsessively put up decorations early, most commonly for nostalgic reasons either to relive the magic or to compensate for past neglect.

In a world full of stress and anxiety people like to associate to things that make them happy and Christmas decorations evoke those strong feelings of the childhood.

Decorations are simply an anchor or pathway to those old childhood magical emotions of excitement. So putting up those Christmas decorations early extend the excitement!”

Amy Morin, another psychoanalyst, linked Christmas decorations with the pleasures of childhood, telling the site: “The holiday season stirs up a sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia helps link people to their personal past and it helps people understand their identity. For many, putting up Christmas decorations early is a way for them to reconnect with their childhoods.”

She also explained that these nostalgic memories can help remind people of spending the holidays with loved ones who have since passed away. As Morin remarked, “Decorating early may help them feel more connected with that individual.”

And that neighbor of yours who has already been decorated since Halloween? Well, according to a study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, homes that have been warmly decorated for the holidays make the residents appear more “friendly and cohesive” compared to non-decorated homes when observed by strangers. Basically, a little wreath can go a long way.

So if you want to hang those stockings before you’ve digested your Thanksgiving dinner, go ahead. You might just find yourself happier for it.

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How Mammoth Poop Gave Us Pumpkin Pie
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When it’s time to express gratitude for the many privileges bestowed upon your family this Thanksgiving, don’t forget to be grateful for mammoth poop. The excrement of this long-extinct species is a big reason why holiday desserts taste so good.

Why? Because, as Smithsonian Insider reports, tens of thousands of years ago, mammoths, elephants, and mastodons had an affinity for wild gourds, the ancestors of squashes and pumpkin. In a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a Smithsonian researcher and colleagues found that wild gourds—which were much smaller than our modern-day butternuts—carried a bitter-tasting toxin in their flesh that acted as a deterrent to some animals. While small rodents would avoid eating the gourds, the huge mammals would not. Their taste buds wouldn't pick up the bitter flavor and the toxin had no effect on them. Mammoths would eat the gourds and pass the indigestible seeds out in their feces. The seeds would then be plopped into whatever habitat range the mammoth was roaming in, complete with fertilizer.

When the mammoths went extinct as recently as 4000 years ago, the gourds faced the same fate—until humans began to domesticate the plants, allowing for the rise of pumpkins. But had it not been for the dispersal of the seeds via mammoth crap, the gourd might not have survived long enough to arrive at our dinner tables.

So as you dig into your pumpkin pie this year, be sure to think of the heaping piles of dung that made the delicious treat possible.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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