Did you ever wonder where Hallowe’en came from, or why we have a celebration about ghosts and ghouls?
A long time ago, I used to write freelance articles and short stories for a children's magazine series that has since faded from view. They were actual, physical magazines, and, for whatever reason, they went the way of so many physical, actual, hold-in-your hands magazines. Sad, because it was a great source of story and information, beautifully presented by some talented editors and designers.
Anyway, I wrote a piece for Hallowe'en which didn't quite make it to publication. I found it the other day and thought, woo, serendipity! So, here it is for your delectation and information:
Eve of the Dark
written by Cate Whittle
Did you ever wonder where Hallowe’en came from, or why we have a celebration about ghosts and ghouls? Come with me on a journey to investigate the people who gave us this tradition, and find out why it was a very important festival for them.
Close your eyes and travel back in time. Keep going, until you reach a small village. The people here are Britons. They lived on the island of Britain before the Romans were there. They were still there when the Romans left. They were from a group of people known as the Celts. At this time the Celts were spread right across Western Europe. Today, their descendants live mostly in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall (in the south-west of England) and Brittany in France. You might have Celtic ancestry, especially if your family originally came from one of these places.
In your mind's eye, see the village you have come to: a few scattered dwellings; some animal pens; and a bigger structure, a hall of some sort.
A Special Feast
Tonight, everyone has gathered around a large bonfire. There are some tables spread with food. You can choose from fruits and nuts, or roasted vegetables. They have all been grown and gathered through the summer months. Or maybe you would like to pick a meat dish? Most of the meat has been salted to preserve it for eating through the lean winter months ahead.
You have arrived just in time for an important ritual. The meat bones are being thrown onto the bonfire. This is to cleanse their spirits...
...for this is a night when spirits walk.
Come a little closer to the fire. It's cold tonight. The wind is blowing through the trees, and who knows what else is out there?
Tonight is Samhain eve. The night when the barriers between the worlds are lowered, and spirits cross from the Otherworld. Perhaps members of our families who have died come back to visit, and we make them welcome with gifts of honey cakes and ale.
There are games to play, too, to entertain them. You might join in as some of the children bob for apples. Kneeling beside a wooden tub filled with water, you try to catch an apple in your teeth as the water sloshes around, well stirred up.
Did you catch one? Good. The apple is magic tonight, and you want to keep it close.
Now the elders are giving the children burning branches from the bonfire. It is their task to run around the village. Someone passes you a branch and you run after the others, hurrying to catch up. No-one wants to be alone tonight.
There are other spirits wandering free that we don't want to meet. Faeries and evil shades will try to hunt you or lead you astray. Perhaps they will take you to the Otherworld, never to be seen again. The fire protects the village.
The fire has another purpose, too. In each of the dwellings, the hearth has been cleaned out, and waits for the fire to be rekindled, using flames from the sacred bonfire. Each house will be warmed by the same fire, strengthening the bonds within the tribe.
Come back to the fireside now, warm your hands, eat some of the special honey cake, and feel the warmth of life all around you.
Winter is coming. A harsh time, of bitter cold and little to eat. But the village is well prepared. The harvest has been good, and tonight we have made the spirits of our dead happy. We are at one with past, present and the future.
Remember to stay close tonight, though. Did you hear that howling? What was that moving in the shadows over there? Is that the Wild Hunt riding past?
Who were the Celts?
The Celts were an Iron Age people who came right across Europe and were living in Britain by about 450 BCE. The Celtic culture was made up of groups of tribes with similar languages and practices. Although the Romans took over much of Europe and Britain, and brought their own culture and technology with them, the Celts kept many of their beliefs. The Romans had all left Britain by 410 CE.
The Celtic Year
The Celtic year is divided into two main seasons - the light and the dark. Samhain is one of the two doorways of the Celtic year, believed to be a time of strong magic. Samhain is the start of the dark (or winter). Samhain eve is on 31st October. You might know this date as Hallowe'en.
The word Samhain is taken from the Irish language. It is usually pronounced sow'en. It means summer's end.
In Scots Gaelic it is Samhuinn. Each of the Celtic languages have their own words for the feast, but the rituals and beliefs are pretty much the same right across the Celtic world.
Samhain was a pre-Christian festival. In the ninth century CE the Christian Church decided to move its feast day of All Martyrs. It was changed from May to 1st November. This became the feast of All Hallows (or All Saints). All Hallows Eve (Hallowe'en) took the place of the Samhain festival. Many of the celebrations stayed the same, and in some places still happen today.
Celtic people believed apples were special. There was a magic apple tree in the Otherworld. In stories, heroes crossed the sea to find this country. Bobbing for apples was a symbol of these great journeys.
The Wild Hunt
The Celtic people also believed in ghosts and creatures from the Otherworld. On Samhain eve, they believed that the Wild Hunt, made up of faeries and evil spirits, would cross the bridge between the worlds to ride in search of people who were lost or alone. They would then chase and capture these people and take them back to the Otherworld, and no-one would ever know what had become of them!
Lots of people are interested in the history of the Celts. Some of them like to celebrate their festivals. These people may be known as Neo-Pagans, or as Wicca. There are also some people who combine the Celtic belief system with Christianity. Samhain fires still burn.
In Australia, Samhain should actually begin on 1st May. Samhain eve would be 30th April. That is the beginning of our winter.
But Hallowe'en has become so ingrained as one of our holidays (holy days) that it happens at the end of October (just as if we were still in the northern hemisphere!).
Here is a beautiful poem I found about Samhain:
I am the hallow-tide of all souls passing,
I am the bright releaser of all pain,
I am the quickener of the fallen seed-case,
I am the glance of snow, the strike of rain.
I am the hollow of the winter twilight,
I am the hearth-fire and the welcome bread,
I am the curtained awning of the pillow,
I am unending wisdom's golden thread.
from Caitlin Matthews
References used in compiling this article:
Caitlin Matthews, Celtic Devotional, Godsfield Press, UK 1996