I was terrified when I did the school run this morning. Instead of being greeted by the usual shy, sweet children, I cowered from hundreds of witches and vampires running amok, screaming at the top of their voices. Hallowe’en is here again.
For all that it has been hijacked by the American-Disney-Corporate entity, there are a lot of Hallowe’en traditions that are truly that – traditions. I’m not talking about trick-or-treat, most recently described as “dental Armageddon”, which has only really been a menace since the 1920s. What interests me most are the origins of this holiday and how tradition is reflected in our modern day interpretation of Hallowe’en.
Some 5000 years ago (yup – five thousand) the proto-Celts built a massive tomb near where Dublin now sits, aligning it with sunrise on the winter solstice. No-one knows exactly why the tomb was built, but it is an accurate astral chronometer. A thousand years before the Great Pyramids, five hundred years before Stonehenge, the proto-Celts’ remarkably sophisticated calendar consisted of twelve thirty-day months, with five additional festival days. Today is the festival of Samhain, the bridge between the end of one year and the beginning of the next.
It was said that on such days, the borders between this world and the realm of Faerie were at their weakest, allowing the Fair Folk access to the world of mortals. As the Church slowly hijacked local traditions, merging them with Christian doctrine, November 1st became All Hallows’ Day and Samhain became Hallowe’en. The Fair Folk were viewed as a hangover from Celtic paganism and were systematically vilified as monsters, goblins, and countless other nasty beings. Our custom of dressing up has gone on for centuries (possibly even millennia) as an attempt to disguise ourselves and confuse those spirits that do make it through the veil.
Just as with the Mexican Día de Muertos, this was also a time when you could send a message to departed friends and family. Gifts were left for the dead, amongst them the bounty of the harvest: nuts, apples, and the like. It’s a different worldview to look at the onset of winter as the beginning of the year, but looking at harvest as the culmination of a year’s work needs no explanation.
And what of pumpkins, I hear you ask? Well that one’s easy. When the Irish immigrants in the United States wanted to make their Samhain lanterns to ward off the evil spirits, they found that pumpkins were a lot easier to carve than the more traditional Irish turnip: the Irish are nothing if not practical. But what most people don’t realise is the grisly precursor to that part of the story. The Celts used to behead their enemies and eat the brains of their victims in a demonstration of superiority. The skulls were kept as lanterns for such days, to scare off the spirits of their former inhabitants. So for pumpkin, read turnip, read skull. And try not to anger any of your Irish friends today.
Nowadays, Hallowe’en has been adopted in many countries as a non-religious celebration, the first of many winter holidays of indulgence, and a great excuse for children and grown-ups alike to dress up in increasingly creative and terrifying costumes. Just don’t forget to book an appointment with the dentist when you dare to venture out again…