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The Message of Halloween; The Message of Samhain
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What is Halloween about really? Before Christianity swept through Europe from the fourth to the twelfth centuries (with some isolated places remaining Pagan into the early fifteenth century [Jones and Pennik, 1995, p.173]) , Europeans did worship the divine by celebrating special holidays. These holidays were not lost because the folk customs for celebrating holidays were adapted to Christian beliefs. One holiday, however, did not fare very well over the course of the centuries. Halloween, or Samhain (pronounced sow-wen) , which had been a celebration of comfort, turned into a night of children playing rather mean pranks. In ancient Europe, as fall turned chilly and nights long, many people knew they would not survive the coming winter. Further, many people had lost loved ones and needed an occasion marked out for remembering the beloved dead. For the pre-Christian people of Europe this occasion was one of excitement because they held a firm belief that their loved ones were in the hands of the divine, and on this night the divine allowed the love of the living and the dead to be communicated. Bonfires were lit on hills, people found their way to the places of celebration by paths marked by lighted gourds (today’s jack ‘o lanterns) , children’s mischief was condoned for the night, and everyone danced and feasted in the knowledge that the soul never dies and the divine blesses all of us with love which death itself can not end.
“Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and… men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers’ gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples’ horses were moved to different fields…The Druid rites [for Samhain]… were concerned with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration rather than as sources of dread” (Carr-gomm, 1991) . Why would ancient people allow the pranks Carr-gomm describes? Our own experiences can answer this. When someone we love dearly dies, such as a parent, the world seems totally upside-down. Nothing is as it should be because the person who should be there is not. Perhaps, then, these antics were a way to recognize these deep feelings--letting the outer-world of every day life reflect the inner world of our hearts. Over time the meaning of these topsy-turvy acts was lost but the mischief persisted.
Interesting the holiday’s two folk customs of divining the future and engaging in mischief endured for centuries complete with belief in spirits wandering close by though the sophistication of community rituals led by well-versed priests was lost. “In 19th Century America, rural immigrants from Ireland and Scotland kept gender-specific Halloween customs from their homelands: girls stayed indoors and did divination games, while the boys roamed outdoors engaging in almost equally ritualized pranks, which their elders “blamed” on the spirits being abroad that night” (Tad Tuleja, 1994) .
The word Halloween is from the contraction Hallowe’en which stood for All Hallows Even. All Hallows Even is believed to mean All Saints Eve (even and eve as in evening) . Nevertheless, hallow originally and still means simply holy, and when in the plural, as it is in All Hallows Even, is given a secondary usage meaning of “applied to the gods of the heathens or their shrines” (OED) . Since the Christian meaning of saints superseded the Pagan meaning the phrase for the holiday is translated All Saints Day. However, since the earlier Pagan meaning is still known, probably a more correct translation for the Pagan holiday is All Gods Eve.
A clear indication that the ancient Samhain celebration was about the return of the dead to tell their loved ones they are safe is this translation of a Gaelic chant recited by boys in Waterford County in Ireland as they skulk up to farms demanding happily some food on Samhain. If the last sentence is mispunctuated, and the word coming should start a new sentence, then this chant suggests that the boys represent ghosts who still want bread and milk and women. We can assume they represent ghosts because the dead were buried in mounds and fairy tales replace mounds with hills since the mounds were as big as hills in some cases. The “ghosts” come to see their women and assure them that they the departed ones are safe though dead: “Rise up housewife, go inside womanly, return hospitably, bring with you a slice of bread and butter the colour [sic] of your own cheek, as high as a hare’s jump with a cock’s step of butter on it. Bring us a measure of thick fine sweet milk, with new milk below and cream above, coming [sic] in hills and going in mountains; you may think it would choke me, but, alas! I am in no danger” (Danahar, 2001) . Nothing can choke them because they are dead.
For some reason, when the communion with the remembered dead and worship of Gods for this holiday was forgotten, the folk tradition of turning a blind-eye to children’s mischief for one night persisted. Unfortunately some children were rather mean, and their mischief was destructive. Finally in the USA, desperate communities focused on what to do about the problem. The children needed something better to do. In their wisdom, most American communities decided it was better to teach the children how to have some constructive fun—how to use their imaginations in a way that would enrich them—and that generosity is better than destruction. The custom of trick or treating was born. Children have their safe scare of going out into the dark. Children fire their imaginations with who they could be by dressing up. Children receive gifts of candy instead of playing mean pranks. Imagination and generosity, this is Halloween.
But what about those ghosts, black cats, and Witches? Well, the ghosts are our loved ones who have died. The kitties can see in the dark and so can see what we humans can not. Our beloved kitties are a symbol of seeing what we can not see with our eyes but can with our hearts—the divine. The Witches are people with a deep belief in the divine, a religious people who have reclaimed the divine in the ancient folk customs. Witch is a word that many wish to reclaim in its dignity of meaning a spiritual person who practices a religion with beliefs and practices that gives joy of worship and communion with divinity. Communion with the beloved dead and with divinity, this is Samhain.
Philip Carr-gomm (1991) The Elements of the Druid Tradition, Element Books, UK, USA, and Australia
Kevin Danaher. (2001) The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press, Ireland.
Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick (1995) . A History of Pagan Europe, Barnes and Noble, Inc., USA.
Tad Tuleja (1994) , “Trick or Treat: Pre-Texts and Contexts, ” found in Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, edited by Jack Satino, University of Texas Press, USA.
Copyright: 2006 Cynthia Joyce Clay
Location: Miami, Florida
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