Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Halloween: Origins

Halloween: Origins

“From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!”
Traditional Scottish prayer


            Most sources agree that Halloween started as a Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween) in the Celt language. The Celts were spread far and wide, from northwest Spain (Galicia and Astoria) to northern Europe, and from Ireland to Anatolia in the first millennium before Christ. Their spiritual beliefs were tightly bound to the natural world and its cycles. Samhain was their most important festival. It marked both the beginning of winter, when herds were brought in to winter pasture, and the end of the harvest: the end of one annual cycle and the start of the next.
            The Celts believed that in this time of endings and beginnings, around November 1 by our calendar, the boundaries between this world and the otherworld weakened. Spirits of the dead traveled to the otherworld, and so could mingle with the living as they passed. People made sacrifices and lit bonfires to honor them, and also to help them find their way to the otherworld so they would not stay among the living. It was truly the time when “ghoulies and ghosties” were abroad in the darkness.
            Christian missionaries who came to spread the faith to the Celts were instructed by Pope Gregory to turn pagan belief and custom to the service of Christ. One of the ways this was done was to use days sacred to pagan belief for the celebration of church holy days. The church judged Samhain demonic, and its spirits not just dangerous, but malicious, intent on doing harm. The otherworld of the Celts was identified with the Christian Hell. The Church proclaimed this day to instead be celebrated the feast of All Saints. It hoped the Celtic peoples would abandon their pagan gods for the saints.
But ancient beliefs long held are hard to destroy. Some people continued to follow the old ways; they were often accused of witchcraft. The Celts accepted the saints, but the characteristics of the old gods were seen in some saints. The pagan deities themselves, though diminished, survived,  remembered as fairy or leprechaun.
            The powerful symbolism of the wandering dead endured. An abstract feast honoring remote saints needed something more to attract the energy of the old Samhain tradition, so the church established All Souls Day, a time for praying for the souls of the dead, on November 2.
            All Saints is also called All Hallows (hallowed means “sacred” or “holy”), making October 31 Hallows Eve. On Hallows Eve, human and supernatural are likely to meet each other; the wandering dead are about, but the church convinced its followers that the supernatural was evil. The cross was protection, but as insurance, the spirits were bribed with gifts of food and drink to pass and leave people unharmed. The term “All Hallows Eve” itself evolved, becoming first Hallow Evening, and later, Hallowe’en.

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