Friday, October 31, 2008


Last night, the township where we live had the annual Hallowe'en . . .well, what exactly does one call it? The annual gathering of the candy? The annual emptying out of nearby apartments with parents slowly driving through our neighborhood and children maniacally running from house to house getting as much candy loot as they can?

Of course, there are the dozen or so children who live near us, and it is always fun to see them.

When our children were small, we made costumes for them as they joined the roving bands of children. I still have several costumes I made for our daughter stored in a drawer somewhere--let's see--there is the gypsy dancer costume, the Little House on the Prairie pioneer girl, and (my best ever, if I do say so) the Spanish dancer dress in black brocade complete with a red mantilla!

But, how exactly did we arrive at the place that this "holiday" is now one of the most popular, in terms of decorating, and in items sold--costumes, decorations, and candy?

There should be no surprise that the original concept of Hallowe'en (my daughter points out to me that I am the only one she knows who insists on the apostrophe--but, it does after all stand for the missing V) came from the ancients--in this case the Celtic Druids. Their celebration corresponded with the end of the year, as they counted it. October 31 was when the final harvest was gathered, the fires of the old year extinguished, and the marking of winter began. They called their festival Samhain (pronounced Sow-in). Understandably, the beginning of the long dark winter signified death to them. The ancients believed this time between life and death gave rise to a blurring of the two worlds--the dead could roam on this night.

The ancients built huge bonfires, and wore costumes, frequently from animal skins. Upon the conclusion of their celebrating the passing of the old year and the start of the new, they took embers from the dying bonfire, and relit their own hearth fires.

The Romans get into this history as well, because having conquered Celtic lands in the expansion of the Roman empire, the Romans appropriated much of the Celtic Druid traditions. The Romans also had a day for remembering the dead, so they elided that holiday with the Celtic Samhain.

With the rise of Christianity, which was greatly aided by the degree to which the Roman empire had expanded, the orthodoxy of the church sought to co-opt previously "heathen" celebrations. Pope Boniface decreed that the celebration of All Saints, which had been on May 13, would now be November 1. That in turn made October 31 All Hallow's Eve, or Halloweven--Hallowe'en.

Of course, we have long ago forgotten any religious association--whether Druid, Roman or Christian. Children dress in costumes because. . .everyone does. The costumes tend sometimes toward the gruesome, which is entirely in keeping with the Celtic Druid tradition of trying to fool the ghosts who come back to haunt the earth. The bonfires, and even carved pumpkins--also trying to fool the ghosts--all fit into an ancient tradition.

So, how was your participation in the ancient ritual--saying goodbye to the old year, welcoming the new year?


Mary C said...

Thanks for the historical background, Donna. In lieu of this particular "holiday" (another interesting word form) I would prefer celebrating All Saints' Day (Nov 1). But many folks in this day and age don't even know there is such an observance.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. My students watched a video on a service called "BrainPop" that talked about the history of Hallowe'en today. (I threw that apostrophe in just for you! :) ) They were fascinated. We are also studying El Dia de los Muertos and will learn and write about it early next week.

It did feel a bit new year-ish to me today. I guess that was my Celtic ancestors calling out through my genes and reminding me to start anew. For me, that meant that I cleaned my whiteboard in my classroom and rewrote everything neatly in new colors.

Hey, I never said I was deep! :)

NCmountainwoman said...

I must admit that I have never viewed it as the new year. To me it is the beginning of fall and winter holidays. We do attend All Saints and All Souls, so that always seems intertwined with our pagan Halloween rituals.

And we still decorate the house with all those tacky decorations.

Ruth said...

Very interesting post. I do feel that fall, particularly September, is more of a new year than Jan 1st. The Jewish people also have a fall New Year which made a lot of sense in their culture.