The Story of Halloween
Halloween is a Turning Point in Time
Our ancestors paid great attention to times which marked a change, a turning point from what-was-before to what-is-now. They believed these Turning Points in Time were endowed with Magic. They saw them as filled with portent.
We still look at anniversaries in this way, and celebrate such turning points as significant birthdays, college graduations and other meaningful times when we change from one state to another.
But there are many more transitions. The time between one night and the new dawn, the meeting of sea and shore, the closing of an old year and the opening of the new, these times are made of mystery and magic.
The turning of the year is the time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, and the living can communicate with their beloved dead.
One of these times is Halloween.
At Halloween we Cross a Threshold
This night has long been a special time. It's been called many names, in many places.
The celebrations, which include a night to honour ancient gods, a welcome to a new season, an opportunity to respect to the beloved dead, all hinge on the act of passing through a gate in our lives, of crossing over a threshold.
It's a time that we pass from one place to the other.
Samhain, the Fire Festival
If you lived in Ancient Ireland
In the Celtic calendar this time of year was celebrated as Samhain, an ancient fire festival and generally regarded as the Celtic New Year.
Let's say you were living in ancient Ireland. This would be the time for the herds from summer pasture to be brought down, the great fire would be rekindled for the coming year and the portents examined for the future. The souls of the dead would revisit their earthly homes on this day.
Time to Reap and to Reflect
Traditionally, Samhain was time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter. This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock.
As the festival signifies the end of the Summer and the time of reflection, so does it signify the time to bring in the spiritual harvest and give thanks for the bounty.
The sacred fires remained but their significance was forgotten
All Hallows and Hallowmas
By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, replacing Samhain with a ceremony to honour saints and martyrs.
But the new religion was grafted onto the old. The sacred fires remained, though their significance was forgotten. The cross no longer represented the rays of the sun on water, but the cross of Calvary. The fires which had been built to propitiate the old god were now lit for protection against him.
The autumn festival became the vigil of All Hallows or All Saints' Day.
This holy day grew to include November 2 as All Souls' Day, a day to honour the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas.
A scholarly work by Jean Markale, best known for his numerous works on Celtic civilisation, the Druids and on King Arthur,
As time goes by
Halloween is a holiday of many mysterious customs, but each one has a history and the ancient festival has been transformed into the realm of folk observances.
The tradition of trick-or-treating dates back to All Souls' Day Parades in England when the poor would beg for pastries called soul cakes. In return, the grateful beggar would promise to pray for the family's dead relatives. Eventually going a-souling was taken up by children who would visit houses in their neighbourhood and be given ale, food, and money.
When it was thought that the souls of the dead were out and around, along with fairies, witches, demons and other assorted evil creatures, offerings of food and drink were left out to placate them. As the centuries wore on, people began dressing like these dreadful creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink.
This practice is called mumming, from which the practice of trick-or-treating evolved. To this day, witches, ghosts, and skeleton figures of the dead are among the favourite disguises.
From Samhain to Halloween - National Geographic Channel
© 2010 Susanna Duffy