You’d be living under a rock if you DIDN’T know today marks the holiday Western Culture refers to as "Halloween". I’d also doubt there is any reader of this blog who can claim they have NEVER gone "Trick or Treating", seen a carved pumpkin, bobbed for apples, quaked as a child at the image of a "witch" on a broom, or attempted to avoid the bad luck of a black cat crossing their path. It’s just what we DO in our culture and it’s "tradition".
But how many of you have ever given thought to WHY these activities and beliefs have become so widely performed or accepted in our culture (or anything ELSE we do out of "tradition")? That’s what I thought…we really DON’T give it any thought as we’re preparing our buckets of candy to hand out to the Trick or Treaters or dressing our children in costumes to send out door to door for candy…it’s just what we DO out of "tradition".
Unfortunately for you, dear readers, no one has submitted further responses to that previous blog, which will not be named, so I am essentially BAAAAAAAACK! Consider this history lecture YOUR fault then…The History of Halloween 101.
Behind the name... Halloween (or the Hallow E'en as they call it in Ireland) means All Hallows Eve, or the night before the 'All Hallows', also called 'All Hallowmas', or 'All Saints', or 'All Souls' Day, observed on November 1. In old English the word Hallow meant 'sanctify'. Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans used to observe All Hallows Day to honor all Saints in heaven, known or unknown. They used to consider it with all solemnity as one of the most significant observances of the Church year. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV introduced All Saints' Day to replace the pagan festival of the dead. It was observed on May 13. Later, Gregory III changed the date to November 1.
Despite this connection with the Roman Church, the American version of Halloween Day celebration owes its origin to the ancient (pre-Christian) Druidic fire festival called "Samhain", celebrated by the Celts in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Samhain is pronounced "sow-in", with "sow" rhyming with cow.
"Samhain, or All Hallowtide, the feast of the dead in Pagan and Christian times, signalized the close of harvest and the initiation of the winter season, lasting till May.
Before Christianity, our previous European ancestors practiced many spiritual beliefs that were deeply entrenched in the recognition of lunar cycles and seasons…they HAD to…the seasons and crops were their sustenance and they developed rituals to honor or "mark" these seasons and beliefs. Also of importance to these agricultural populations, was the honoring of the sacred feminine, which they referred to as "Earth"…the earth was the giver and taker of life (thus, Mother Earth today).
Traditionally, as mentioned earlier, Samhain marked the beginning of the Earth moving into its darkness as winter approached, the harvest was gathered, and plants died back. This natural and cyclic process of the "dying" of Earth became a symbolic time to honor "death" and the passing of all things into the darkness.
Because it was a natural time to honor death, early Pagans also believed it was appropriate at this time to honor all death, including those that had passed before them. It was believed that on this day, Samhain, the spirits of the dead were more accessible and returned to walk on the earth in spirit form, bringing prophecies of what was ahead. In current Pagan practice, Samhain marks the time when "the veil between the worlds is the thinnest", or the moment when communication with spirits is heightened.
In their honoring of these spirits, Pagan tradition mandated the spirits be "fed" from the bounties of the recent harvest as a means of sharing these fruits and also to appease. They would place bowls of food, drink, and/or fruit on their doorsteps, believing the spirits would partake of this bounty at their own free will.
The early Pagans also incorporated the ideas of "mischievous" or "bad" spirits returning to walk the earth on this night as well. Although there was no belief in EVIL, Pagans felt there were spirits who might get "stuck" in the physical world and be unable to return behind the veil and also spirits who returned as pranksters, impeding others of the deceased from re-entering the afterlife. They also would place candles in their windows to "light the path" or encourage the spirits to move along on their journey.
This is where the tradition of the Jack o’ Lantern was born. However, the American pumpkin was not plentiful in Europe during this time, so the ancestors carved frightening faces originally in turnips and would place them on their doorsteps or carry these faces with them on Samhain as a means of "warding off" or frightening the mischievous spirits from their doorsteps. The American Jack o’ Lantern came centuries later as did the tradition of illuminating these frightening faces (thus taking the candle OUT of the window and placing it within the pumpkin).
The broom was traditionally believed to be a tool of good fortune and a protective symbol. It was kept at the hearth in homes to protect this vulnerable entry and again to "ward off" anything unwanted in the household. The broom was used in marriage ceremonies (actually NOT traditional marriage as we know it today…thank you, George Bush!) and also to "sweep" away those things unwanted.
Another important Pagan tradition was that of honoring the Crone, or wise woman (I’ll tie the broom in here shortly). The crone was revered as the healer and keeper of ancient traditions and she was at times, feared for her powers of "knowing" and wisdom as well as her magical abilities. She birthed the babies of the communities, gathered herbs to heal the sick, and was thought to be in closer communications with the deceased ancestors as well as the deities. She held a highly respected place in society.
Unfortunately, because these Pagans became quite difficult to "convert" to Christianity and the male leaders of the Roman Catholic Church could not wipe out the Pagan traditions totally, either with brute force or fear, the Church began a campaign of instilling fear in it’s followers instead. They chose to focus on those considered the "leaders" of the Pagan tradition and take the symbols of the Pagan beliefs and bastardize the meanings and celebrations. The crone and the broom were just two of these symbols/traditions used in a long line of fear-instilling propaganda techniques used by the Church…the advent of the "witch" was born.
It was said that the crone possessed such magical powers that she could fly through the night skies undetected on her broom and cast evil spells among the Christian followers as well as on their children and crops. Out of fear, this propaganda was quickly incorporated and a mass campaign was begun to rid the world of this evil…hence, the witch trials, commonly known as "The Burning Times". There’s too much information here to give justice to this subject, but suffice it to say, the "witch" has remained a symbol of evil in the modern world to this day (makes you kind of want to rethink becoming an old lady now, doesn’t it?!?)
The tradition of Trick or Treating is not so easily traced, as it seems to have incorporated many beliefs and traditions. One belief is the Trick or Treater is simply a representation of the souls traveling in the night on Samhain and is simplified into: A treat will send the spirit on their way, and no treat will cause them to become mischievous or "tricky". Some scholars believe the costumes/masks actually represent the LIVING and came about as a means of traveling undetected on this night if someone had to leave the protection of their home…in other words, the costuming would mask them from the spirits as well. All I know, is the idea of Trick or Treating has become such a money-making consumer boon, it is unlikely it will matter much if it’s origins are EVER uncovered!
The black cat also has many symbolic connotations, but most importantly early Christians found the feline to be "incorrigible"…I still believe this idea today as Meha sits perched on my arm!!! The crone was also one who communicated with the animals and animal spirits and she was believed to chose a "Familiar" when doing magic…cats were small and domesticated and easily made into companions. (Need I remind you here that the "cat" was made into such an EVIL symbol by the Church, that thousands were killed, causing an abundance of rats and mice to infest the granaries, carrying disease, and eventual spread of "The Black Plague"…just a thought.) The Black Cat became the ultimate symbol of the crone’s "familiar" and, therefore, possessed a great threat and evil to the Church. Today, we still mutter fear of having a black cat cross our paths…this comes from a belief the crone would send her cat out into the world to do her evil bidding for her. (Beware, Meha!)
Bobbing for apples…this one is a no-brainer if you know the tradition of the apple during early times (ever read, "The Mists Of Avalon"? "Avalon" represented the apple). OK, cut an apple in half, but not the traditional LONG way…cut it in the center and not stem to bottom. What do you see? You see the inner seed area forming a five-pointed star or "pentagram". I’m too tired now to go into a long discussion about the pentagram and it’s protective symbology, but suffice it to say the symbol was highly revered by the earl Pagans. Because of this seed pattern, the apple was also thought to have magical powers. The apple would be cut in half and used as a divination tool by Pagan practitioners as a means of predicting the future and many other magical practices. "Bobbing for apples", or sticking one’s head into the murky, unknown waters and pulling out an apple in the teeth, was a way of symbolizing the passage of moving below the surface (or even behind the veil) and then surfacing with good fortune.
You’re probably asking yourself right now WHERE ON EARTH did I come up with this stuff??? I will confess to you my love of religious study and have done extensive research over the years about the pre-Christian traditions and the psychological ways these traditions have become incorporated into our everyday lives and our unconscious. Certainly, most anything I have provided here can and has been disputed amongst religious scholars…you can take it for what it’s worth to you and continue to believe whatever your heart desires.
Happy Halloween! Aren’t you now just dreading a future post about Thanksgiving?!?…