“On the day of the dead, when the year too dies…” (Susann Cooper; The Grey King; part of The Dark Is Rising series)
Think you know about Samhain, which some people call Halloween? If you’ve researched the net, read a lot of books, and have been able to tell the kernels of truth from all the bogus crap, you probably do. I am still going to write about it. It’s October, and there can’t be too much good stuff posted.
In the ancient Celtic culture, the yearly calendar ran with the seasons. The year, therefore, died when the harvest was done and the earth apparently shut down its fecundity. The cold, dark times were upon the people now, which often meant death for human and animal alike if they hadn’t prepared properly, or some calamity struck. The ancient Celts believed that in this time between the last harvest and the New Year’s beginning, which they marked with festivals ranging from three to seven days (depending on which sources you go by), the Veil between the worlds was at its thinnest. Samhain was the time the dead could return; sometimes just to visit, sometimes to play nasty tricks on the living. It was a time of prophecy and sacrifices to the gods. Dressing up, usually in animal skins and masks, was thought to confuse any spirit that might wish you ill. Bonfires to hold back the darkness, carving turnips to make lanterns to light your way, divination, setting a place at the table for returning family members… those are traditions associated with Samhain. (I have seen on the web the claim that the Samhain bonfire was used to rekindle the village hearth fires. I am not sure where it came from, but I wish it would go away. That tradition belongs to Yule, the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year…and symbolizes the rebirth of the Sun…the fires of creation)
That is Samhain in a quick nutshell. Modern-day Halloween owes its roots to other cultures and traditions, too. The pagan Romans, for example, celebrated two of their own festivals around the same time of the year: Feralia, the Commemoration of the Dead, and the feast of Pomona, Roman goddess of fruit and trees, especially apples. See the connections?
Then the Roman Catholic Church stepped in, declaring a feast day to honor all saints and martyrs. Eventually, that became All Souls Day, on November 1st of the Gregorian calendar, making the night before All Souls Eve. In Middle English, I am told that was Alholomesse; All Hallows… from whence we get Halloween.
Trick-o-Treat: Seems to be mainly an American thing, and has had several swings in popularity from its apparent beginnings in the Colonial South (the northern Puritans, of course, wanting nothing to do with such ‘frivolous nonsense’.) It may be rooted in an older English tradition, when poor families would beg ‘soul cakes’ from the more affluent members of society, in exchange for prayers for the giving family’s dearly departed. The Jack o’Lantern is definitely American, although probably based on the little humble turnip lanterns of the Celtic lands. Having done both, I will say the pumpkin is a LOT easier. I am not sure where the scary faces came from… you couldn’t do those on a turnip without a lot of patience, a very sharp knife, and the biggest turnips you could find.
So where, exactly, did the telling of ghost stories, the ‘Hell Night’ pranks, and all of that come from? Ghost stories have always been told around fires, sometimes to scare children into good behavior, sometimes just to pass the time. I can only think Hell Night pranks are the product of some twisted mind’s take on the ancient fear of malevolent spirits. (Let’s face it, it only takes one or two really degenerate psychos to mess things up for a whole lot of people.)
So, dress up in your favorite alter-ego. Have parties for the kiddies, have parties for the adults. Don’t ask too many questions of visitors who seem soooo familiar but you just can’t place. Do not destroy property. If you drink, don’t drive. Tell spooky stories, and have a grand time.
And take at least a few minutes to salute the Old Year, remember those you’ve lost over the past year, and hail the New Year.