The morning air is crisp, with frost begin to trickle across windows and the first creeping edges of ice beginning to form in puddles and lakes. The sun seems to be retreating from the chill, leaving the world locked in darkness for longer and longer periods of time as Fall marches on and Winter encroaches. Everywhere we start seeing the tell-tale signs of a holiday of chills and thrills setting on, zombies in the garden, witches in the window, and the flickering flaming eyes of Jack-O-Lanterns on doorsteps everywhere.
No one can doubt it, Halloween is coming. But what are the origins of Halloween? Why does this day hold significance in so many cultures, by so many names? In Mexico it’s the Day of the Dead, and to the Catholics it’s All Hallow’s Eve, to the Voodoun November 2nd is feast of Baron Samedi, one of the Lwa who has dominion over the dead. Death is a common theme, and perhaps at so cold a time of the year it’s no surprise. Let’s take a closer look at this holiday, and how it came to be the wonderfully chill filled time of year it is today.
It’s All About The Harvest
It seems a little strange to those of us who live in the modern age, with our conveniences that enable us to get just about any food we want at any time of year. No more do we have to fear the encroaching winter and figure out how we’re going to eat throughout the coldest part of the year. Even in the midst of several feet of snow, we can get fresh ripe Oranges from warmer climes, bright red tomatoes grown in hot-houses, and the meat in our freezer doesn’t spoil until we’re ready to eat it.
To ancient peoples, the slowly fading sun was a sign that the months of abundance were numbered. The sun was quite literally life to them, with the herds moving on to where the grass till grew, birds flying south until the winter snows passed, and the formerly fertile ground becoming frozen and barren. Winter was often a season of death, and as summer turned into autumn, reminders that the world was dying were everywhere.
So what does this have to do with little boys and girls dressed up like goblins and ghosts, and sweet-treat candies being handed out to them? To the ancient people it wasn’t just that plants and animals were fading from the world for the winter, to them the living world was literally moving closer to the land of the dead. As the veil between our world and the next grew thinner, so the dead were more present in our day to day lives, and is it any surprise they thought so when the reaper claimed so many during the darkest nights of the year?
No Seriously, Why The Ghosts and Goblins?
The exact details vary depending on where you come from. Halloween is largely based on Samhain, an ancient Celtic ceremony where the dead were believed to walk the Earth. Leaving treats out for them ensured that they would be pleased and not perform mischievous tricks on you. Children would dress up as these dead and go from home to home soliciting offerings to the dead, and would perform unpleasant tricks on those who failed to leave proper gifts.
The Jack-O-Lantern has a long history itself, and while carved pumpkins jump to the modern mind, it’s important to remember that the pumpkin is a plant of the New World, originally Jack-O-Lanterns were carved from turnips and other gourds. The purpose they served again varied by where you were, either as a way to ward off the spirits and protect the home from unwanted visitors, or were used as a way to guide the dead back to home, so they did not get lost on the way.
It was common practice, back in these times, to set an extra place at the table for those who had gone before. Family members and friends were thought to come and visit at this time of year, returning from the land of the dead to spend the evening with those they loved in life.
Time, integration, and commercialisation has turned this ancient ritual into the fun, child-centred holiday it is. The spirits of the past became the ghost and goblins of today, and the presence of spirits and the otherworldly fuelled it as the best time of year to watch spooky movies and watch the shadows for our greatest fears.
More Halloween Time Holidays
We’ve mentioned that other holidays exist around this time of the year, and they all share a common theme. Death, ghosts, and otherworldly.
Day Of The Dead (Oct 31st -Nov 2nd ):
Die de los Meurtos, the Day of the Dead. It is a time to honor and celebrate friends and family who have passed before, to support them on their spiritual journey and remember the effects they had on our lives. The Day of the Dead is celebrated with feasts for the dead, specially built altars, and sugar skulls. Heavily Catholicised now, it traces it’s routes back to an Aztec festival dedicated to the Goddess Mictecacihuatl.
Ghede (November 2nd):
A Voodoun holiday sacred to Baron Samedi, a Lwa (god) of the dead. It is said that until the Baron chooses to dig your grave, you cannot die, and so staying on good terms with him is important. Ghede is a word of two meaning, the verb gede which means to slice through, and igede, a word that means incantation and specifically related to the mystery of death. A massive feast and social celebration is held, with faces being painted and ceremonies being held. Dancing and music are common, as the Lwa are incredibly fond of raucous parties, Baron Samedi being particularly fond of Tobacco, Rum, and Women.
Whatever your heritage, it is likely that within it is a celebration of this time of change, as the world fades and the sun retreats, leaving us in a season of cold and darkness until the days start lengthening again in December. What’s your heritage?