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An Ancient Tradition Descends With Dusk
David Weber takes a look at the origins of Halloween
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2005-10-30 11:29 (KST)   
Chalk Drawing of the Jack-o-Lantern - an enduring symbol of Halloween
©2005 D.Weber
Once again the emissaries of the otherworld -- goblins, witches, ghosts and ghouls -- will throng the streets to bring chaos to order.

Halloween, known as Samhain (or "Sow-en" for the Gaelic-minded) to the ancient Celts of northern Europe, was a time when the boundaries between this world and the next were weakened and beings could cross over to this world. Bonfires were lit on hilltops to keep evil spirits at bay and hideously distorted masks were worn to protect its wearer from the mischief of these otherworldly travelers.

Traditional Mexican Masks
©2005 D.Weber
This is one of the oldest observed holidays we have, even if it has been stripped of its original sentiments. The symbolic gestures are still there and enacted and therefore the ancient custom of Halloween is still very much alive, if however in another sense.

A Golden Grim Reaper in Germany reminds people of the shortness of life
©2005 D.Weber
The modern form of Halloween comes more or less directly from Ireland, one of the last refuges of the Celtic people. Samhain, however, was once observed from Switzerland to Spain to Ireland when the Celts roamed these areas nearly 3,000 years ago.

A Ghostly Gentleman in Venice
©2005 D.Weber
Samhain was the time of the harvest and the beginning of the new year for the Celts. It was the end of the old year and the beginning of winter when the nights started to grow longer. At this time, the crops were harvested and stored, the cattle not needed for milking or breeding were slaughtered, and the apprentices, travelers, warriors, and bards either returned home or took lodgings to sit out the winter.

The long nights were spent recounting tales of heroes, lovers, ghosts and fairies. Outside it was believed that the "fairy folk" whom once driven into underground exile by the Celts went abroad again as did other less savory beings.

As one of the in-between days that was neither part of the old or new year, Samhain was seen as one of those especially powerful times when the boundaries of this world and the otherworld were weakened allowing the fairy folk and the spirits of the departed easier passage to this one.

Not all of these otherworldly travelers were harmless and steps had to be taken to either placate them or frighten them off. Great fires were made on hilltops to drive these malignant spirits away. Into these fires were thrown sacrificial items of personal possessions. Also thrown in were the bones of the cattle slaughtered at harvest time.

This tradition held long after the origins of this practice were forgotten. In later years, these fires were called "bone-fires" in English and later simply "bonfires."

A Frightening Mask from Transylvania
©2005 D.Weber
Frightening masks were worn to either scare off harmful spirits or confuse them into mistaking the wearer for a fellow spirit. In staying with the theme of light keeping the forces of darkness at bay, the Celts would carry hollowed-out turnips carved into fearful shapes lit with a candle or coal.

This was the origin of the Jack-o-Lantern. The pumpkin, a plucky native plant of North America, was found to be a perfect Jack-o-Lantern by Irish immigrants in the 19th century.

Samhain was also a time for reflection and remembrance of the dead (these being the dead of departed loved ones not the restless undead or living dead who had to be dealt with in a more harsher way). This tradition continued in Spain and subsequently Mexico and Latin America known as the El Dia de los Muertos: the Day of the Dead (which sounds like a George Romero zombie movie).

A Transylvanian Tombstone
©2005 D.Weber
On Samhain, divinations for the following year were made because it was felt that such fortune telling would be stronger with the otherworld being so close. We still see this tradition today when psychics make predictions about celebrity break-ups for the coming year on New Year's. Samhain was, after all, the "New Year" of the Celts.

Celtic belief in the supernatural -- the paranormal -- was very strong. This belief in the supernatural played a large role in their lives and societies. They planned their wars, loves and harvests by the divinations of their priests and priestesses (the Druids) or from the portents of signs that were apparently abundant back then.

Today, relieved of these superstitions by the sober and perhaps sometimes unimaginative mind of science, we can only wonder how these ancient peoples viewed their world.

The name "Halloween" comes from a corruption of the word "All Hallow's Eve." Nov. 1 was the Catholic feast day All Saints Day. The word "hallow" means something that is sacred. The early Catholic Church used to placate pagan converts by allowing them to observe their ancient holidays but in a Christian setting (Christmas and Easter are examples of this).

The later Church, however, was not as lenient and certain sects of the Protestant Church were even less so (groups like the Puritans and Calvinists actually felt that the Catholic Church was too liberal!).

Dracula and his vampiric ilk are always popular on Halloween
©2005 D.Weber
The Protestants disregarded Halloween along with its papist trappings. Interestingly enough a historical incident in the 17th century brought a slightly modified Halloween-ish traditional back to England. Guy Fawkes, a knavish scoundrel by all accounts of the day and a Catholic to boot, sought to blow a proudly Protestant Parliament sky high.

His diabolical plot was foiled and he was promptly dispatched on Nov. 5, thus beginning Guy Fawkes Day, a rather unprogressive anti-Catholic observance as seen by some. Children would go around knocking on doors and bothering passersby with cries of "Penny for Guy" much like the cry for candy that comes from an avid North American trick-or-treater.

Halloween came to America and Canada in the 19th century from Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. There were earlier elements of Halloween already there from Guy Fawkes and earlier Irish immigrants but now the holiday took off in earnest becoming much as it is today.

Another interesting trait is the acts of mischievous behavior that goes on among the young adults on Halloween. As far back as ancient Celtic time, right up to modern times, young adults would vent a little steam by creating a bit of mischief which in old times could be blamed on rogue spirits (police these days don't buy into that excuse anymore, unfortunately).

A common prank these days is to "roll" someone's yard, which means applying toilet paper to the trees, mailboxes, lawn furniture and vehicles, basically anything in the yard capable of having toilet paper wrapped around it. "Egging" is another popular if unsavory prank in which young vandals throw raw eggs at someone's unlucky abode and sometimes at their unlucky person.

The expression "trick-or-treat" carries with it a subtle threat that if a homeowner does not hand over some form of confectionary bribery, the costumed prepubescent beggars will do some nasty trick against the stingy miser. Nowadays, most kids burble out "Trick-or-Treat!" without a clue that legally they could be held accountable for extortion.

A crow sitting upon a tombstone in Tokyo
©2005 D.Weber
In the early 20th century, soulless U.S. corporations filled with zombified employees realized the moneymaking potential in Halloween. They worked to gear it more for the youngsters and -- voila! -- suddenly you had an authentic American tradition (and a profitable one at that).

With the explosion of suburbs in the 50s, trick-or-treating really took off. Houses could individually decorate their yards and children could easily walk from house to house raking in hoards of candy. As a result of the proliferation of trick-or-treating, no doubt dentists hold Halloween near and dear to their pocketbooks.

Despite the crass commercialism behind Halloween, it's interesting how many of the old rituals are still enacted almost within the same sense. The Celts, like all ancient people, were very spiritual and as such were more symbolic in their thinking rather than analytical. This came from their closer contact to nature and their affinity with the unconscious mind.

Kids are very much in the unconscious world during their developing. I think this is one reason why kids pick up on Halloween so well and understand it without really understanding it. Kids love to dress up to be scary without really knowing why. Some psychologists say it's a way of dealing with their fears, which could describe the motive behind the ancient Celt practice as well.

Christian groups have inadvertently added to the appeal and overall spirit of Halloween. By trying to make Halloween out to be the Devil's night, they help add and enhance the fear and fright that Halloween is all about -- everybody likes a good scare, after all. It just annoying when some of these groups lobby to stop Halloween or when they give out crummy treats (or none at all) along with a lengthy sermon on the evils of Halloween to trick-or-treaters.

All in all, Halloween is a distant but vibrant echo of an earlier time from the distant past that comes just a bit closer on this special night.

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©2005 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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