By Candice Louisa Daquin
Halloween is one of the oldest fire festivals in the world, perhaps because it considers the relationship between the living and the dead and that has been a primal theme in all human’s lives. Ancient people were more connected to the changing of seasons because their lives literally depended upon it in a way many of us cannot understand today. Most festivals have their origins in food and seasons for this reason. Ancient observations of the dead exist in nearly every recorded culture. Where I live Dias De Los Muertos is as popular as Halloween because we have a 70 percent Hispanic population. Some (though it’s growing smaller) groups of Christians refuse to celebrate Halloween as they feel they are celebrating something Pagan.
True, the celebrations held on October 31, known to exist as far back as the 5th century, were traditionally a Pagan ancient Celtic festival called Samhain. Samhain was not some Devil worshipping name as was incorrectly assumed, but actually ‘Summers End’ in Celtic. The tradition of “dumb supper” included eating but only after inviting ancestors to join in, giving families a chance to interact with people they knew who had died and returned that night as spirits. Children entertained the dead with games while adults would update those who had passed with news. On that night, doors and windows were left open for the dead to eat cakes that had been left for them.
This night was also when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. In many ways sharing the idea of remembering the dead with Dias De Los Muertos. Most ancient cultures bred superstition alongside remembrance into a festival of some kind. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you’ll know about All Saints Day (and martyrs) which began during the eighth century when Pope Gregory III decided November 1 would be a time to honour all saints who did not have their own holiday. This Catholic holiday caught on in New Orleans in America and is still celebrated today. Many believe the Christian church was deliberately supplanting Pagan festivals of the dead with Christian ones that emphasised more church-related themes. The evening before All Saints Day (el Dia de los Inocentes in Mexico was day of the children also held on November 1) had been known as All Hallows Eve, and later became Halloween. All Hallows came from Middle English with Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day.
Samhain traditionally marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter, which back then was often associated with human death. Harvest was considered a thriving time, Winter, the dying before Spring. Ancient Celts believed Samhain was a special night where the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was closer together and the ghosts of the dead could walk the earth. This is where we retain the fearfulness of subjects like death and ghosts in modern times.
Sacred festivals and rituals were part of many Pagan cultures, and Samhain was no exception. The fearfulness was countered with large bonfires (the name bonfire comes from ‘bone fire’ which related to the slaughter of cattle and burning of their bones at this time of year) and druids warded off evil spirits with sacrifices. As blasphemous as that may seem to some modern religions, it was the way ancient people understood things and brought them a sense of control. Not so different really when all things are considered. It is human nature to observe or remember the dead, it is also our tendency to wish to see them again, which is ideal in this ‘thin time of year’.
The Roman’s had celebrated Feralia which was traditionally a commemoration of the passing of the dead, Lemuria, placating the restless dead and Parentalia, honoring the spirits of ancestors. Combining these with Pomona who was the Roman Goddess of fruit and trees, they melded their traditional festivals with more Dias De Los Muertos themes and added apples, which we now incorporate with apple bobbing at Halloween. Apples are also historically connected to the ‘otherworld’ throughout history. It’s fascinating to know these extremely ancient practices are still practiced today, even as we may not know why.
Although we think of modern Halloween as originating from America as modern Christmas (Father Christmas and Christmas fir Trees) from Germany, the truth is American’s got many of their Halloween ideas from ancient European traditions, including ‘trick or treating’. But America definitely made those traditions wide-spread and thus, known worldwide. In the end, it was from America the rest of the world got their cue.
Scottish poet Robert Burns’s poem of the same name helped popularize the actual word Halloween in his poem of the same name. The modern name is two words pushed together. “Hallow” — or holy person — refers to the saints celebrated on All Saints’ Day, (November 1) and the “een” is a contraction of “eve” — or evening before. Thus, the evening before All Saints’ Day.
The Puritans of New England, refused to observe any holidays which might be associated with pagan beliefs – including Christmas, Easter and Halloween, but the Irish, who had always celebrated, shifted North America’s idea of Halloween when they arrived in large numbers after the Potato Famine. The jack o’ lantern which became our carved pumpkin originated from the Irish folk tale of Stingy Jack, a drunk and man who fooled the devil into banning him from hell but due to being a sinner could not enter heaven. When he died, he roamed the world carrying a small lantern made of a turnip with a hot ember from hell inside to light his way. People carved pumpkins or similar to ward off the ghost of Stingy Jack.
Halloween today is a giant commercial day, with companies selling more confectionary on Halloween than any other period in the year. Costumes and parties abound and adults now get into Halloween as much as children. Films specifically for this time of year are made and people relish the more secularised version of Halloween that doesn’t stand for anything that would threaten a family’s value system.
‘Trick or treating’ might have come from an English tradition on All Soul’s Day of giving soul cakes to those who promised to pray for the dead. Churches also gave out food, by way of appeasing spirits, and children would visit houses on Halloween and receive food or drink. Perhaps because food and drink were often scarce in the olden days, this was akin to eating pancakes on ‘Fat Tuesday’ before fasting. The value of food cannot be unappreciated and it features in every festival in some way, irrespective of culture.
The wearing of masks was to make oneself unrecognizable to those spirits who might return on Halloween. Originally called ‘guising’ (later, disguising) people used ash and then later, made masks. A disguise would ensure the Aos Sí, (fairies/spirits/ghosts) wouldn’t take you back with them to the ‘otherworld.’ Many cultures offer food to the dead as a way of respecting them or keeping them from taking the lives of the living.
Mumming, was the art of dressing up, often to act in skits to entertain others. Using anything available, people dressed up on Halloween to disguise themselves and ask for food. In later days, both at Halloween and other events, some people spent a lot of money on elaborate costumes. Like with anything, this was a status symbol, though the core remains the same; dressing up for fun. Allhallowtide was the old name for the originally three-day festival where such things occurred. Allhallowtide included All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and the subsequent All Souls’ Day.
Black cats are often not sold at Halloween for fear of people purchasing them for sacrifice or mistreatment. The fear of black cats actually goes back to times where those deemed witches were thought to be able to turn themselves into a black cat. It’s a horrible stigma on innocent creatures, who have often found themselves tortured for the colour of their fur.
A revival of Samhain began in the 1980s with the growing popularity of Wicca. Modern Pagan’s and Wiccans today also observe Samhain as part of their faith. Celtic Reconstructionists celebrate by creating an altar for the dead where a feast is held in honour of loved ones who have died. It is not devil worship but far more an observance of an ancient time of transformation and understanding of the relationship between life and death. Samhain was never about worshipping death or evil. It was about the changing of seasons and preparing for the dying and rebirth of nature as the seasons changed. Through time ancient festivals held around this time of year influenced one another until they merged together and modern times developed the theme commercially. It’s a nice idea to imagine when we send our kids out trick or treating, we’re not worshipping Devils but we are remembering ancient rites held thousands of years ago.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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2 replies on “Welcoming the Dark Half of the Year”
Reblogged this on cabbagesandkings524 and commented:
History, traditions, and correcting a few misunderstandings
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Got me thinking about Soul Cakes and remembering a song:
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