by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter and Boston City Paper, 10/2012
Nationally and locally, the newspapers are full of negative news and stories. In the spirit of lightening things up a bit and having some reading enjoyment, I thought we could talk about my second favorite holiday, Halloween.
There’s a lot going on this month to celebrate Halloween, from apple picking and everything flavored with pumpkin, to terrific haunted houses, such as our very own Orpheum here in Foxboro and many other excellent venues that will scare the bajeebies out of you and get you “in the spirit.”
Since I was a kid I’ve always loved Halloween and thought you might enjoy a little history lesson about this very strange and magical time of year — a story that begins over two thousand years ago!
Halloween, also known as All Hallowmass or All Hallows Eve, is the day before All Hallows Day (All Saints Day). Most Halloween festivities are based on folk beliefs concerning supernatural forces and spirits of the dead.
Many familiar Halloween customs began with the Celts — a tribal people who inhabited most of Western and Central Europe over 2000 years ago — and a festival they called Samhain. Pronounced “sow’ an” and literally meaning “end of summer,” Samhain marked the end of the old year, start of winter and also a sort of thanksgiving day, commemorating the year’s harvest. In Scotland, land of some of my ancestors, the day was called Hallowe’en.
Samhain was also a festival for honoring the dead. It began at sundown on October 31 and lasted into the next day. Samhain was a night to be feared, because the Celts believed that turning points (such as a change of season) were magical times, and Samhain was the greatest turning point — one year ending as another was beginning. On Samhain, the veil between the worlds was believed to be at its thinnest, when the living could communicate with their dead ancestors, and the dead were allowed to wander the earth. Samhain was a night evil spirits were out and about, and at their most powerful.
There may be something to all of that — doesn’t Halloween night always feel a little different, a little… I don’t know, strange? Like there are things going on that night that are just a little supernatural, just a little odd? I’ve felt it, although admittedly I may have been off my meds.
In any case, the Celtic Pagan religion was called Druidism, and to combat the spirits and protect themselves, the Druid priests used fire rituals. Some of these rituals were quite violent, but let’s keep things light in the spirit of fun.
These bonfires were used to attract the dead and to keep them away from people’s homes. (This may have been one of the origins of Jack O’ Lanterns, by the way.)
Many aspects of the Celtic festival of the dead eventually were absorbed into Christian culture after the Romans conquered the Celts. The Roman Catholic Church often modified Pagan religious traditions in order to win converts. In the 9th century, the Church changed All Saints Day — a day for remembering Christians who had died for their beliefs — from May 13 to November 1, to Christianize October 31 from Samhain into All Hallows Eve. (This was very much like the way the Church decided upon December 25 as the date for Christmas to overshadow and replace that date which was already Saturnalia, the Pagan “feast of the unconquered sun.”)
Moving a little closer to our century, we find that here in the States in the 1600’s, the strict English Puritans rejected Halloween as a Catholic and Pagan holiday. Back then, witches and demons were greatly feared, and that fear led to a dark episode in New England history: The Salem Witch trials, when hysteria gripped the town of Salem and twenty innocent people were accused of being witches and consorting with the devil. These people were given show trials, and summarily executed.
While these innocents were not witches, it is important to point out that Wiccans do not worship the devil, and that witches do not have any all-evil deity in their religious structure. In fact, the Wiccan religion is one of harmony, life, balance, and peace. Wiccans believe that the earth and all living things share the same life force, composed of patterns of intelligence, of knowledge, and of divinity. All life is connected. There is a deep reverence for nature and animals. Even their greeting/blessing, “Blessed be,” is very similar to the Christian, “Amen.”
In fact, I am friends with a Pagan, and one Halloween I joined her and many other people for Salem’s annual Commemorative Candlelight Walk to the city’s Witchcraft Memorial, where a wreath is laid to commemorate those victims who were persecuted and killed during the “Witch Hunters’ Hysteria of 1692.? under the incorrect definition of “Witchcraft”. It was a very moving experience.
For the last few decades, Halloween is a big business and celebrated in various ways, yet many of these traditions are still reminiscent of the ancient Celtic rituals. In Scotland, people build bonfires called the “Hallowe’en blaze” and dance around the flames. In France, parts of Europe and Latin America, Halloween is a time for celebrating the fall harvest and honoring deceased loved ones. In Mexico, it’s called The Day of the Dead, and is a day for decorating the home with human skeletons, leaving food offerings for wandering spirits, and tending the graves of deceased relatives. And of course, here in the States, we celebrate with trick-or-treat, pumpkins, ghost stories, parties, haunted houses and costumes. And of course, Salem Massachusetts has become the Mecca of all Halloween celebrations and is well worth the trip. I absolutely love it.
But the above history only answers some of the questions. What about the other customs associated with that night? Why do kids trick-or-treat? Why do we dress up? What’s the deal with pumpkins and apples? Why is Bob Gillis so weird?
That last question has puzzled teams of therapists, but other questions DO have answers. Let’s start with pumpkins. But first we need to switch gears from actual history to fantasy. Also called a Jack O’Lantern, carved pumpkins are named (as legend has it) after a gentleman named Jack. The story goes that Jack was a drunk and rabble-rouser. One Halloween, the devil came for him, but Jack was able to outsmart the devil, and in the process forced the devil to relinquish all claims on Jack’s soul. But when Jack finally died, he was denied entrance into Heaven because of his sins. The devil was still smarting from all of Jacks tricks, and denied him access to Hell, giving Jack only a piece of coal to find his way through the nether world of limbo. Jack lit the coal and placed it into the turnip, and used the lantern to find his way. The story goes that poor Jack still wanders the Earth with his lantern, trying to find a place to rest.
Closer to actual history, using pumpkins as Halloween decorations is a custom that came from the Irish and Scottish who used carved out turnips or beets as lanterns. On Halloween, these lights represented the souls of the dead. When the Celtic folk came to America, there weren’t a lot of turnips, but plenty of pumpkins for carving.
How about bobbing for apples? Well, in Britain, Romans combined Samhain customs with their own Pagan harvest festival honoring Pomona, goddess of fruit trees, and this may or may not be where we got the custom of bobbing for apples at Halloween — association of the holiday with fruit. Another Celtic tradition held that in bobbing for apples, the first to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year.
Trick or treating has several origins. During Samhain, people would leave food and drink outside to placate the wandering spirits. There was also the old Irish peasant practice of going from door to door to collect money and food in preparation for the festival of St. Columb Kill. Over time, people began dressing as these evil spirits and performing antics in exchange for the food and drink — much like children do today, dressing up as “evil spirits” and going door to door, begging for treats and promising tricks if the offering isn’t given. Full disclosure — I trick-or-treated until I was 15. I mean, c’mon, FREE CANDY!
Samhain is still celebrated today by Pagans and Wiccans; their new year is a time to gather to celebrate with family and friends. For them, it is a powerful magical time, a time to reflect on their lives and pray for a future of balance, harmony, joy and health, and to ponder the mysteries of the Otherworld, and honor those who have passed on.
Years ago, Sue and I attended the “Samhain Magick Circle Ceremony” in Salem on Halloween — a gathering of hundreds of people on Gallows Hill Park, where many witches were hanged. The Wiccan rite of New Year is a profoundly moving ceremony where these good people gather in a circle, commemorate the year gone by, recall that life is a circle, that death is a beginning to new life, and that the elements protect and nurture them.
They pray for blessings, protection and guidance. They remember and honor loved ones who have gone before. There is live music, dance, drumming and traditional chants.
We held hands. We walked through an arch with a blessing from the elements. There was a tangible feeling of grace and friendship in the air. And not a demon or devil-worshipper in sight.
Go. See this ceremony. Your eyes might be opened to the diversity of religious belief, or maybe help dispel the incorrect stereotypes of Wiccans and see them as they are — ordinary people, celebrating life, and asking their creator for blessing and guidance.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this little history lesson. Halloween (Samhain) is a fascinating holiday with a very rich history, with many traditions that have endured through the millennia, a day that has spawned tragedy and confusion, and ultimately evolved into a day whose early rituals are still celebrated in many different forms today, be it honoring saints and praying for departed souls, commemorating a new year, reflection, or a night of trick-or-treat and costume parties and pranks and fun. However you celebrate October 31, enjoy yourself. Happy Halloween! Happy Samhain! Blessed be!