The Magical History of Halloween

Picture this. A bright moon is rising between layers of heavy black cloud illuminating trembling trees that loom out of the darkness, their branches reaching into the sky like stripped bones. There's a penetrating chill in the air and a profound sense of foreboding permeates the gloom as figures lurk in the dark shadows around the edges of buildings. In the distance, a black cat hisses as it skitters nervously away to hide in the safety and darkness of nearby bushes. It is a night when the natural world is forced to confront the powers of the supernatural.

No, we are not watching a Stephen King movie. I am getting into the swing of things with Halloween fast approaching. Homes are being decorated, the shops are full of cobwebs, skeletons and carved pumpkins and there is excitement in the air as children chatter eagerly about their costumes.

When we think of Halloween, our minds conjure up images of ghosts, witches, vampires and monsters. On October 31st, you can hardly walk through the shops without bumping into a blood-sucking vampire, a zombie or a witch riding a broomstick. Hollywood and literature has crafted versions of these creatures for us, but like many fantastic characters of myth and lore they have a basis in reality.

Halloween has been called many names through the centuries. The original word ‘Hallowe’en’ actually means ‘hallowed evening’ and has been called All Hallow’s Eve, Day of the Dead, All Saints Eve, Samhain (Summer’s end) and of course Halloween, and for centuries it’s been considered one of the most magical nights of the year. It’s a night of power when we are meant to believe a veil that separates our world from the 'Otherworld' is at its thinnest and I, for one, have always been more than a little wary about celebrating the ‘day of the dead’. Even the air feels different on Halloween.

Being a superstitious woman of Irish decent who avoids black cats, walking under ladders, putting umbrellas up inside the house, not to mention throwing salt over your left shoulder in case the devil attempts to creep up behind you, I believe this night is so much more than just a harmless night of trick or treating when children dress up in costumes and knock on strangers’ doors asking for candy and chocolate. Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong with chocolate. After eating chocolate, I personally feel godlike. Bring forth the chocolates, I say. But there is much more to Halloween than trick or treating. Today, we have lost the significance of this most meaningful time of year which in modern times has turned into a candy fest with kids dressing up as ghouls and goblins. But the Celts in Ireland believed that the normal laws of space and time were held in abeyance during this time, allowing a special window to open where the spirit world could intermingle with the living. Many believed it was a night when the dead could cross the veils and physically return to the land of the living to celebrate with their family or clan. As such, the great burial mounds of Ireland were lit at midnight with torches lining crumbling walls, so the spirits of the dead could find their way in the darkness. Out of this ancient tradition comes one of our most famous icons of the holiday: the Jack-o-lantern.

The Jack-o-lantern was used as a light for the lost soul of Jack, a notorious trickster, stuck between worlds. Jack is said to have tricked the devil into a trunk of a tree by carving an image of a cross in the tree's trunk. He successfully trapped the devil but after already having been denied access to Heaven, and then having also angered the devil in Hell, Jack was a lost soul, trapped between worlds. As a consolation, the devil gave him a sole ember to light his way through the darkness between worlds. Originally in Ireland, turnips were hollowed out and candles placed inside as lanterns lit to help guide Jack’s lost spirit back home. Hence the term: Jack-o-lanterns. Later, when immigrants came to the new world, pumpkins were more readily available, and so the carved pumpkins holding a lit candle served the same function.

In one sense it was a time of plenty and homecoming. It was Harvest time and people would have been well fed after the bountiful summer and autumn seasons and they would have been gathering in their homes after a long day spent working in the fields. The harvest was stored in the barns and the flocks and herds had been driven in from the summer pastures in preparation. Traders, sailors and people with skills to offer had all come back home ready for the celebrations. It was a time for reunions, stories, the settlement of disputes and the learning of lessons to be applied in the next year. More than anything, it was a time for relaxation. In medieval Ireland local kings were said to hold a feast at their royal halls for a week before and after ‘Samhain’, for all these purposes. There was, however, the other face of the festival. It ushered in winter, the most frightening, uncomfortable and inconvenient of all the seasons in the northlands. Even in modern Britain, it is the time when clocks are changed and the night rushes early into the afternoon. Halloween was the feast that prefaced the months of darkness, cold, hunger and the physical illnesses consequent of all of those. What was coming was the season of death; not just of leaves, flowers and light, but of humans, as more would perish in the winter and early spring than at any other time of year. That was why Halloween was widely regarded as the time when the spirits of darkness and fear, the evil and malevolent forces of nature, were let loose upon the earth.

People reacted to this forbidding prospect in two different ways. In ancient times, it was the festival of prophecy in which people gathered together and most frequently tried to predict the future especially regarding death and marriage. Bonfires were lit and torches were carried around homes and fields from east to west, ‘sunwise’, to protect them. Even the flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers. In pre-modern times the prediction most often sought was who would live through the winter. Another reaction was to mock darkness and fear by singing songs about spirits and lighting candles on the graves of the dead. It wasn’t until around the 16th century when the festival involved people going house-to-house impersonating souls of the dead, reciting verses or songs and receiving offerings on their behalf, usually a small round cake called a ‘soul cake’.

For me, there is magic in a night when pumpkins glow by moonlight. Instead of a terrifying night spent watching fearfully out of windows for movement while bonfires burned brightly, it has become a joyous night for families to get together and have a bit of fun by dressing up as ghosts and goblins and wandering the streets with friends. It’s the only time when adults can show their true wierdness by dressing up as a kid again. It’s a night for hocus pocus, spells, creepy stories and it’s a night to eat, drink and be scary. It’s a night when I feel as happy as a witch in a broom factory. If money can’t buy happines, explain Halloween decorations to me.

Happy Halloween everyone.

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