All Hallow's Even
Halloween - the name - came to us via the Roman Catholic church, being a shortening of All Hallows Even - the night before All Saints day (November 1). The tradition of Halloween popped up originally from the Celts. The Irish Celts named the day Samhain (pronounced Sow[like cow]-in); the holiday marked the end of Summer, festival of the harvest and the beginning of winter, a rather frightening time. The Scottish Gaels named it SamFuin (the end of summer) or Hallowtide.
On this special day the Celts believed that the rules of time and space were suspended. Their tradition held that the disembodied souls of those who had died during the year would scout the earth looking for living bodies to inhabit for a year.
Homes would extinguish their lights, to be re-kindled by a huge Druid bonfire (oft bearing sacrifices of this bountiful world such as cattle, sheep or even horses) marking the new year. Instead of staying home and taking the chance of being overtaken by a spirit, throngs of people would dress up ghoulishly and go clamoring through the street attempting to dissuade the spirit from inhabiting any one of them. On the outskirts of town they would place fruit (especially apples) and tasty things in order to both celebrate the harvest and to direct the attention of pesky spirits and faeries who might cause mischief. They would also carve turnips with faces and occasionally light them up (I see Jack of the Lantern here, my dear). The night was also full of prophecy as Druid priest and priestesses would predict, powered by other spirits, who might be likely to die or what crop might have more success in the new year. The telling of the stories of the spirits would be done with gusto as well (precursing our penchant for ghost stories, me thinks).
When the Romans left their rather large sandalprint on the Isles they brought with them their customs attributing a bit of party mirth to the mix. The honored Pomona - the goddess of gardens, fruits and trees (some think bobbing for apples derives from a Roman game of the time) at that time. Trick-or-treating was added by Europeans. Were you friend or foe??? Spirit or well wisher? Soul Cakes (bread and currants) were given out by families even to strangers who, it was hoped, would pray for the souls of their dearly departed.
Christianity marched forth, lumping all that was not Christian to the category of Paegan. Witches - who practiced rites to the elements and spirits - were condemned and marked as evil and devil worshipers. The Reformation made a dent in Halloween. If you couldn't win some favor with your favorite saint to enter the pearly gates..... if all you needed was the grace of God the panhandling fell off a bit, as did the celebration of All Hallows, the day before All Saints Day. Christians even subdivided the practices of Samhain. All Saints would be for Saints of particular valor and our dearly beloved; All Souls would be used to mark the day of the newly departed during the last year (that has changed a bit since then- All Saints is a major feast day while All Souls in the Episcopal Church is an optional observance).
Like it or not, the tradition came to shores of the USA in the minds of the pilgrims who came in wave after wave. The puritans of New England frowned on the practice: they felt repelled by both the paegans and the Catholics. In fact, anyone who took up the 'old ways' could be killed for the practice of witchcraft. Hard as it may be to imagine, Halloween traditions of getting together and harvest and large parties were much more prevalent and welcome in the South.
A rekindling of the embers of the Celtic Halloween came to the USA in 1840's via the Irish immigrants. The pumpkin was oh so simple to carve out than a turnip and households of the old and young here and there would have a celebration complete with Jack and ghostly stories and fortune telling. From time to time adults who had celebrated a bit to much went out on the town and created a bit of mischief here or there, turning over outhouses.... 'raising hell', if you will, in a twist of the ghoulish practices of so long before.
The first world war came and went a harder, mechanised reality was for the adult population. More and more children began to take to the magic and mischief of the festival. The children in turn, without parental supervision or approval would got out and vandalize one thing to another - some harmless only minor destruction of chalk on side walks to rioting in larger cities.
In an effort to take the teeth out of the destruction that was popping up another twist on tradition had its humble beginnings in the 1920's in Anoka, Minnesota: the Halloween parade began there. Everyone, escpecially children, could get in the act and dress up and jumble through the streets of town - often in the daylight hours, now. A far cry from their ancestors raucous dancing and divination by the light of a full moon on a hilltop!
During the world wars Halloween was set aside for practical reasons such as rationing and a bit of fear. If any celebrating was done it moved indoors again to small gatherings.
In the prosperous post-war 1950's Halloween came back with a bang.... or a boom. Back came the parades, even at public schools, the trick or treating, the parties. With gore on the screen of so many "B" movies, there were more theme costumes that in some way tried to take the fear out of what had once been frightening.
I was amazed to find out that the majority of 'scares' that went out in the 1960's about tainted candy and apples had happened - but were not the work of a strange recluse down the street - but rather intentional inside jobs by family members. Now that is frightening.
Halloween is fairly secularized now.... and an extremely big business... second only in overall merchandise and sales to Christmas in this country. Those carrying the torch of the original Samhain tradition are members the Wiccen community. They bless the earth, wish peace to souls who have not found rest and dance near a bonfire to rekindle the light before winter sets in.
We Christians - of all ages - can have fun for the sake of fun and take on different identities on October 31... and give the raspberries to the fact that the days are shorter and the night is longer. We can think about Christians who through valor, teaching, witness and faith we will remember on All Saints Day, November 1. Depending on your tradition, those "other saints"- all the faithful departed are commemorated on All Souls, November 2.
Some people still feel that there is a day to celebrate the time when the bonds between this world and the next are a bit more fluid than our conventional concept of time. For some, that is Halloween, for others, Christmas, for others, the dawn of Easter. As for a part of me, I know that time bends when I know my God is present - in the nature around me, in the love I feel from others, in the freedom that before and now and the future are all one in God's loving eyes.