Halloween - It's a Real Thing!
Speaking of Halloween: it is upon us! And it's not just a candy company invention! It's the sacred tradition of my ancestors - The Celts. (Got any Irish in you? Or Scottish? Or French? Or Galician? Then it's your ancestral tradition too!)
Halloween dates to Pre-Roman times in Western Europe. It is NOT the same thing as Dia de los Muertos, and true Celts would never want to steal another holiday's thunder -- though there are plenty of similarities. Halloween dates back to Samhain, a multi-day festival marking the end of the "light" half of the year and entry into the "dark" half of the year for the ancient Celts. Villages held feasts and giant "bonfires" to celebrate the turn of the seasons, and protect the community.
The Ancient Celts thought that Halloween was the night the veil was thinnest between the world of the living, and the world of the dead. It was the time the spirits of the dead could return to the world of the living. Families set space at their tables for any family spirits who might be visiting.
Forgetting or refusing to do so could make the family spirits angry, and they could cause you all kinds of problems the following year.
But the Celts were also on guard for unfriendly spirits and ghosts. The malicious spirits were the enemies your clan might have slain in battle. (Or cattle raids. Raiding the cattle of the clan next door was apparently a big thing.) Or people you had a history of feuding with. Or people who might have feuded with your parents, and want to take revenge on you because of it.
To hide from the unfriendly spirits, the Celts wore disguises and masks and costumes to confuse them.
When Christianity came to the Celtic areas, the church tried to stamp out the festival, but was pretty unsuccessful. Instead, they pasted some new holidays over the "old" holidays: Samhain (for the Celts, it was a combination New Year's Eve, Halloween & Harvest Festival celebration) became Halloween (All Hallows Eve), followed by All Saints Day Nov. 1, and All Souls Day Nov. 2.
In Pre-Christian and medieval Europe, holidays actually began at sunset the day BEFORE the holiday. The 'Hallows' were sacred, holy, people -- the saints of All Saints Day Nov. 1. (All Hallow's Eve = the evening before the day of the hallows - hallowed ones, in English.)
All the ordinary dead people were to be remembered Nov. 2, on All Souls Day.
To help stamp out all the Halloween partying, the Roman Catholic Church made Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 "Holy days of obligation" -- which meant everyone had to go to morning mass those days. The earlier the better.
And the church preached against those evil pagans and heathens and non-converts still celebrating Samhain/Halloween, saying they were witches and satan and demon worshipers, and they'd all end up in hell.
Did that stop Halloween? Has it been stamped out yet? NO! Thank Ireland, stronghold of the Celts, who immigrated all over the U.S.A. and brought the holiday with them. Only over here, instead of carving faces into turnips and carrying them 'round with candles inside to light the way, they started carving pumpkins.
Trick or Treat? It's a continuation of the post-Christian Irish tradition of kids going door to door on Halloween to ask for "soul cakes" - baked treats - before the All Saints & All Souls holidays. Refuse to hand out soul cakes in your 1600s or 1700s village in Ireland? Well -- you might find your chimney blocked up so all the smoke pours back inside, your cows or sheep let out of their pens and chased off, or who knows? It would all be blamed on the evil spirits and ghosts and witches and demons roaming around on Halloween.
I am not making it up. Check out this column written by a USC History Professor - from last week's Press Democrat. So Irish Diaspora folks: set a place at the table for your favorite departed relatives tomorrow, serve up a meal or dessert that was one of their favorites, and make sure you have candy (modern soulcakes) on hand to give those trick-or-treaters.
If it's safe, have your own mini- bonfire (in your fireplace -- this IS California, not wet, green Ireland.) It's what your ancestors have done for thousands of years.
Oh, and everyone else should do all that too! For the Children! And because it's fun.