Saturday, October 31, 2009
By Julia Williams
Halloween is here, and everywhere you look today you’ll probably see jack-o’lanterns, ghosts, witches and black cats. These are common symbols associated with this jubilant holiday, but that wasn’t always the case. Although many of our present day Halloween customs trace their origins back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, the connection to black cats is relatively recent.
Samhain was a sacred celebration that marked the end of summer. It did not involve witches or sorcery, but the Celts did believe it was a time when the barrier between the living and the dead was temporarily lifted. To keep troublemaking spirits from bothering them, the Celts wore “ghostly” costumes which made them appear dead. They also gave offerings of food to nourish ancestral ghosts thought to be journeying to the afterlife on this date.
When pagan rituals were converted to Christian holidays, Samhain became All Saints Day, All Souls Day, All Hallow’s Eve and finally, Halloween. Christians went door to door with a hollow turnip “lantern” made to symbolize the souls in purgatory, and households offered them “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers for the dead.
So how did black cats come to be associated with Halloween? Many theories abound. One says that the Celtic Druids eventually came to be viewed as witches by the Church. It was believed that witches could shapeshift, and that they would usually disguise themselves as cats. Black cats were thought to be witches familiars (i.e., beings that aided witches in performing witchcraft). Some thought black cats were reincarnated witches as well.
It stands to reason then, that when the Halloween celebration evolved to include the iconic “wicked witch,” the black cat was also included. Thus, the association of the ancient Celts with witchcraft created two of our most common contemporary Halloween symbols. In fact, black cats and witches remain popular Halloween costumes year after year.
Another theory suggests that black cats may have become associated with Halloween as a result of folklore and superstitions about them being evil and causing bad luck. Even now, many still give credence to these legends. In the United States and many European countries, there are people who actually believe that seeing a black cat signifies the coming of bad luck. With two black cats in my household, I am more like the Irish and the British, who generally consider it a sign of good luck if a black cat crosses their path.
I do find it hard to believe that otherwise intelligent human beings could believe something so absurd as “all black cats are evil.” But then, I’ve never been one to buy into any superstition. I think it’s rather sad for black cats, though, who are forced to bear the burden of this unfortunate association.
It is true that black cats are the least likely to be adopted from animal shelters and other animal rescue organizations. You can visit any shelter, any day of the year, to see for yourself. It’s also true that many shelters refuse to adopt out their black cats in the weeks leading up to Halloween. They fear that the black cats could be used for satanic rituals, or that someone might want to have a black cat in their home as a “living decoration” and then surrender it after the Halloween holiday. As preposterous as that might sound to you or me, anything is possible nowadays, so I don’t blame the shelters for taking precautions.
People with black cats are also cautioned to keep them indoors around Halloween for those same reasons. As long as the black cat continues to be associated with the ghosts, goblins, witches and other spooky figures of Halloween, it doesn’t hurt to err on the side of caution. But if you need proof that black cats are not unlucky, just take it from me. My two black cats are ten and six years old, and I’ve had nothing but good luck, love and happiness since they joined my household.
Read more articles by Julia Williams