For thousands of years people have been celebrating holidays and festivals to honor the dead and their ancestors. It is in this vein that I would like to address some of the Christian 'Halloween' myths and put forth some facts on the Pagan celebrations in the past and present.
The Roman Catholic Church attempted to Christianize the pagan festival of 'Samhain' (pronounced sow-in) by adopting November 1 as All-Saints Day or All-Hallows Day - a time to remember those that have passed away. All Saint's (Hallows) Day was first introduced in the 7th century, and was originally on May 13, and then apparently moved to February 21. It was changed to November 1 by Pope Gregory in 835. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the Church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, another day to honor the dead. The Celtic New Year and the Roman New Year were not the same. The Celtic New Year was indeed Nov. 1, but the Roman was on April 22.
Lets first address the word 'halloween' itself. 'Hallow' is an old word meaning holy, to treat as sacred; "e'en" is Scottish/Gaelic for evening. Thus we have 'holy evening or sacred evening'.
Now lets look at the traditional word 'Samhain'. The word 'Samhain' means summer-end; 'Samhuinn' or 'Samhainn' means Hallow-tide.
The Druids were an 'oral' tradition; they didn't write down their teachings. Unfortunately, most of what is known of them from pre-Christian times was written by their mortal enemies: the Roman Empire. The ancient Celtic fire festival called 'Samhain' is the origin of modern Halloween. This festival was the feast of the dead in Pagan and Christian times, marking the close of harvest and the initiation of the winter season. Samhain marks the pagan New Year's eve. It is a time spent celebrating death, fertility, and renewal. The autumn leaves, cornstalks, apples, and nuts which are so much a part of the Halloween season are reminders of the Druids' autumn festival in honor of the harvest.
There is no such deity as 'Samhain, Druid god of the dead'. The 'Great God Samhain' myth appears to have come from Col. Vallency's books in the 1770s before the reliable translations of the Celtic literary works and before the archaeological excavations. 'Samhain' is the name of the holiday. There is no evidence of any god or demon named 'Samhain', 'Samain', 'Sam Hane', or however you want to vary the spelling.
All Hallows Eve is the night to bring to life those who have passed. It is Samhain, All Soul's Day, the Day of the Dead, Halloween. It is the time to 'hallow', to venerate the dead and in so doing, acknowledge their energy which still flows through us. It is the time to be with our ancestors, when the earth hovers in the twilight of decay. The window to those who have already passed is open.
In Ireland, where Halloween began in my opinion, the first jack-o'-lanterns weren't made of pumpkins. They were made out of rutabagas, potatoes, turnips, or even beets. There is an old 18th century Irish 'legend' about a man named Stingy Jack who was too mean to get into heaven and had played too many tricks on the devil to go to hell. When he died, he had to walk the earth, carrying a lantern made out of a turnip with a burning coal inside. Stingy Jack became known as 'Jack of the Lantern', or 'Jack-o'-lantern.' From this legend came the Irish tradition of placing jack-o'-lanterns made of turnips and other vegetables in windows or by doors on Halloween. The jack-o'-lanterns are meant to scare away Stingy Jack and all the other spirits that are said to walk the earth on that night. It wasn't until the tradition was brought to the United States by Irish immigrants in the late 1800's that pumpkins (which were abundant) were used for jack-o'-lanterns.
Let's now see how other countries celebrate 'Samhain':
In Mexico and Spain, Halloween is known as 'Los Dias de los Muertos' (the day of the dead). However, it isn't a time of sadness but one of great rejoicing. At this time of year the Monarch Butterflies, which have summered up north in the United States and Canada, return to Mexico. They are believed to bear the spirits of the dearly departed and are warmly welcomed home. In the homes, the family set up an 'altars' with flowers, bread, fruit and candy. Pictures of the deceased family members are added. In the late afternoon special all night burning candles are lit - it is time to remember the departed. In the Aztec calendar, this ritual fell roughly at the end of the Gregorian month of July and the beginning of August, but in the postconquest era it was moved by Spanish priests so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve.
In Palermo and the rest of Sicily November 2 is a festival day for the children of Palermo as, according to tradition, they believe that their dead relatives would return the night before and leave them traditional sweets and cakes on the table (Martorana fruit, which is almond paste made into the shape of different fruit). They would also receive puppets of boiled sugar and toys. It's one way of keeping the memory of their dead relatives and loved ones alive.
In Japan, the 'Obon Festival', (also called Matsuri or Urabon) is dedicated to the spirits of ancestors, for whom special foods are prepared. Bright red lanterns are hung everywhere. Lit candles are placed into lanterns and floated on rivers and seas. During the 'Obon' period a fire is made every night in order to show the ancestors where their families are. One of the two main occasions during the year when the dead are believed to return to their birthplaces. Memorial stones are cleaned and community dances performed. This festival, however, occurs during July or August.
In China, worshipers in Buddhist temples make 'boats of the law' ( fa-ch'uan) out of paper, some very large, which are then burned in the evening. The purpose of the celebration is twofold: to remember the dead and to free and let ascend to heaven the 'pretas'. The 'pretas' are the spirits of those who died as a result of an accident or a drowning and as a consequence were never buried; their presence among men is thought to be dangerous. Under the guidance of Buddhist temples, societies are formed to carry out ceremonies for the pretas--lanterns are lit, monks are invited to recite sacred verses, and offerings of fruit are presented.
In Korea, the festival is called 'Chusok'. Families take this time to thank their ancestors for the fruits of their labor. The family pays respect to ancestors by visiting their tombs and offering them rice and fruits. Chusok provides an opportunity for different generations to interact and appreciate their extended family. This festival occurs in August or September.
In Sweden, 'Alla Helgons dag', is celebrated between Oct 31-Nov 6. This holiday is celebrated in churches, with choir concerts in cathedrals and by the lighting of candles at the graveside of deceased loved ones.
Not everyone celebrates Halloween to honor their dead and ancestors. Halloween is seen as an 'American' holiday in modern France. Pronounced 'ah-lo-een' by the French, this holiday was virtually unknown there until about 1996. In Sweden the American Halloween arrived about 15 years ago.
Neither Witchcraft nor Wicca is synonymous with Satan or Devil worship. The very concept of a supreme evil spirit is alien to Witches; we do not worship any being known as "Satan" or "the Devil", as defined by the Christian tradition. We do not seek power through the suffering of others, nor accept that personal benefit can be derived only be denial to another. The notion that Witches worship Satan was produced by the Roman Catholic Church as they made their way across Europe, in an effort to suppress the native earth-based religions prevalent at the time.
So if it appears on October 31 that the wind sounds a little too mournful as it whistles through the skeletal fingers of the bare trees, it's only your imagination. And if the nip in the air seems to bear the chilling touch of the grave on it, it's only fall foreshadowing the arrival of winter. It has nothing to do with the ghosts and goblins that a 'legend' has made.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW SOME OLD HALLOWEEN POSTCARDS
Sources and additional reading:
Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, 1980, by the Readers' Digest Association
World Book Encyclopedia, article on All Saints Day
Websters Encyclopedia of Dictionaries
Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland by W.G. Wood-Martin
Asian Mythologies By Yves Bonnefoy, Wendy Doniger, Gerald Honigsblum
History Channel (search word - halloween)
Los Dias de los Muertos
© 1997 - 2010 Fabrisia, reprints not allowed without permission
This page was last modified:
Email Me Your Questions Or Comments