Thursday, October 22, 2009

Halloween: A History

Every year, I have to remind myself (and my family) the origins of my so beloved holiday. I always did find it pretty intresting. Halloween's origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).
The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter. (Imagine if we celebrated New Year's Eve this way! )
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.
During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. (Ha! Can you imagine!?!) When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.
The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called
Hallowmas.
I always find it interesting that our society is made up of so many other cultures' beliefs, yet it is curious to note that all the different groups of people had a way of celebrating their dead around this time each year. It makes me wonder why, here in America, we are so closed about death and the deceased. In the "melting pot" of the world, our celebrations of death are cloaked by religion or candy, or small flowers or flags placed at a grave site, quietly & alone.

I used to be nervous when Emma would bring up Eli's death so often to everyone that would listen- it was always met with shock and almost distain that this little girl would talk about her beloved brother that still whispered to her at night and played with her hair during the day. We, as a society, don't like death & we don't like hearing about it or talking about it. Ignore it, and it will go away.

It doesn't bother me anymore. I love that Eli's death will always be celebrated on September 2nd with balloons and cake, and I love that his big sister (and little brother) will always keep him alive inside. The celebration is not for the dead, it's for the living that they leave behind.

So I apologize if we offend you with balloons to heaven or dances in late night Obon festivals, or sugar skull altars on Dia de los Muertos, but in this family, we celebrate the ones who have passed. They may no longer be living, but they will never be dead to us.
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