Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Brief Halloween History

Scare the Spirits of the Dead
Tomorrow night is the night that many children, and adults, have been looking forward to for a long time, to get dressed up, carve a pumpkin, eat lots of candy and party it up incognito. Halloween, as we know it, has evolved over time and like many of our current traditions, has its roots in the distant past.

There are many theories about what exact tradition or ancient festival is at the heart of our modern Halloween or, All Hallow’s Eve. Some maintain that it is a Christian festival linked to All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2. Historically, during these two Christian festivals, ‘soul-cakes’ would be made and handed out to the poor who would go door-to-door. This was seen as a way of praying for the souls that were then in Purgatory. Halloween is indeed a good time to pull out your copy of Dante’s Inferno. 

Another candidate thought to contribute to the origins of Halloween is the ancient Roman festival of Pomona. Unlike many Roman divinities who had their original Greek counterpart, Pomona was a uniquely Roman goddess or wood nymph who watched over and protected the fruit trees at this harvest time of year. The connection to Halloween seems a little less likely to me but it is still an interesting festival and apples do figure largely in some Halloween activities. Who hasn’t bobbed for apples?

However, when it comes to Halloween the most likely candidate for its origins still seems to be the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘saw-wen’). This was a sacred time of year for the ancient Celts of Gaul, Britain, Scotland and Ireland, a time of the death of summer. In Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man it was known as Samhain, in Wales and Cornwall, Calan Gaeaf and Kalan Gwav respectively.

Never step in a Fairy Ring!
This was the time of the harvest, of bounty but also of death, a part of the cycle of life. It was also a time of year when the door to the Otherworld was opened, the veil at its thinnest. The souls of the dead were said to revisit their former homes where people would set places for them at table. Other beings, such as fairies, roamed the land as well, some good, some mischievous and others harmful.

One way in which people, young and old, would avoid being noticed by spirits of the departed was by wearing a costume or ‘guising’ as it was called. If you had wronged a family member in the past, or even trampled a fairy ring, you were better off having a good costume! The idea of trick-or-treating in 19th century Ireland was a way that folks went door-to-door gathering food as offerings for the fairies or fuel for the purifying bonfires of Samhain. Fire and its light served as protection during the thinning of the veil and the carving of pumpkins into Jack-O-lanterns served to scare spirits and fairies away.

Even if you don’t celebrate Samhain or Halloween in some way, shape or form, it is nonetheless interesting how ancient traditions survive thousands of years, from the feeding of the dead in ancient Egypt and Greece to the Roman and Celtic festivals of the harvest. Halloween seems to be a melding of many different aspects of various cultural traditions.

Samhain Bonfire
So, tomorrow night, whether you are lighting a candle, carving a pumpkin, handing out candy or going all out with your ‘guising’, take a moment to remember that it is not just some modern day, consumer-driven tradition that you are taking part in. Remember that you are taking part in an ancient rite at a sacred time of year for many cultures and that maybe, just maybe, you are being watched from the other side of the veil between this world and the next…
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