Friday, November 1, 2013

What Is Halloween?

Last night was the annual celebration of Halloween for those who participate.  Not everyone does.  And I'm not saying there's anything wrong about that choice.  We do Halloween at my house and are already starting to put together ideas for next year's decorations.  After it came up in conversation a couple of times today, I decided maybe I needed to know a little more about what Halloween is.

There's a lot of disagreement about where the holiday itself originated, but the word Halloween is a contraction of the Scottish  phrase All Hallows' Eve.  The origin is Christian and it means 'hallowed evening' or 'holy evening.'  In Scots, eve, meaning evening, is often contracted to e'en or een.  Over time (All) Hallow(s') E(v)en evolved into Halloween.  All Hallows' Eve (also called Hallowmas) was a mass day for all saints and recently departed souls who had yet to reach heaven (still in purgatory) in the primitive Church.  Originally celebrated in May, the date was changed to October 31 at the behest of Pope Gregory IV in 835.

So the day, and the word, have been around for a long time.

On route home after a night's drinking, Jack encounters
the Devil who tricks him into climbing a tree. A quick-thinking
Jack etches the sign of the cross into the bark, thus trapping
the Devil. Jack strikes a bargain that Satan can never claim his
soul. After a life of sin, drink, and mendacity, Jack is refused entry
to heaven when he dies. Keeping his promise, the Devil refuses
to let Jack into hell and throws a live coal straight from the fires of
hell at him. It was a cold night, so Jack places the coal in a hollowed
out turnip to stop it from going out, since which time Jack and his
lantern have been roaming looking for a place to rest.
An Irish Christian folk tale
The way it's celebrated in America today is a little more complicated.  Like many of our modern holiday traditions there is a mashup of Christian, Pre-Christian and Pagan ideas and celebratory activities from all over the world combined together and commercialized by clever marketing people.

For example, All Hallow's Eve honored dead loved ones and saints.  It was (maybe still is in some places?) a formal Church service that includes services and prayers dedicated to these people.  You can also find this same idea of a day set aside to honor passed on loved ones in the Latin world's La Dia de Los Muertos where families spend the night feasting and remembering their dead at gravesite.  You also see echos of this theme in the Pagan festivals, which mark the passing of the harvest season into the dark days of winter, of Samhain (Celtic) and Calan Gaeaf (Gaelic - specifically, Welsh).  Samhain/Calan Gaeaf were historically seen as a liminal time, when spirits or faeries could more easily come into our world and were particularly active.  It was (perhaps is?) also seen as a time when the dead revisited their homes and places were set at the table, or by the fire, to welcome them.  Sometimes candles burned in every room to help guide them home.

Household festivities included rituals and games intended to divine one's future, especially regarding death and marriage. Nuts and apples were often used in these divination rituals. Special bonfires were lit and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers, and were also used for divination. Some suggest that the fires were a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic – they mimicked the Sun, helping the "powers of growth" and holding back the decay and darkness of winter.

Souling was a Christian practice carried out in many
English towns on Halloween and Christmas.  It refers
to the practice of children begging for spiced fruit
cakes door to door singing this song (1891 version).

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.
Many of the festivals included 'guising' (at least since the 16th century) or 'souling' traveling house to house in costume and reciting verses or singing in exchange for food.  The costume is thought to be a disguise from the mischievous faeries who might wish you some harm.  There are many variations on this theme depending on the specific locale.

The modern images of Halloween draw from these traditions as well as works of Gothic and horror literature (Frankenstein, Dracula or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for example) and horror films (one would be the classic The Mummy).  Images like the skull, a reference to Golgotha in the Christian tradition, serve as a reminder of death and the transitory quality of human life.  Likewise the back walls of many Churches and Cathedrals is decorated with a mural of 'The Last Judgement' complete with graves opening and souls rising to make their way to either heaven (filled with angels) or hell (filled with devils).

In short, there is no single answer to whether Halloween is good or bad.  To see the good or bad is an individual choice.  You can choose the see evil or find meaning in the religious symbology.  You can pick and choose what parts you want to observe, too.  Like most things in life, Halloween is customizable to your specific tastes and wants.  It is just what you make it.

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