Let’s start with a joke – my kid wanted to dress up as a ghost – i told him not to waste money on a custume and just wear a white sheet. Without missing a beat he said – ” dad, your brilliant “
ok, so the history of halloween –
Halloween is rooted in the ancient Gaelic festival known as Samhain. It was one of four Gaelic festivals which punctuated the year at the cross quarter points between the solstices and the equinoxes. These four festivals are
- Imbolc ( between the winter solstice and the Spring equinox),
- Bealtaine ( between the spring equinox and Summer solstice)
- Lunasa ( between the summer solstice and autumn equinox)
- Samhain ( between the spring equinox and winter solstice)
Samhain is definitely the one which is best survived in to modern times and serves as the origin for halloween. To really get a feel for halloween we need to imagine being in Ireland hundreds of years ago entering the dark side of the year. Ireland , despite its temperate climate , is at a fairly extreme latitude and experiences only seven hours of daylight on the winter solstice. It is obvious to point out the lack of electricity and modern entertainments but worth contemplating the effect this dearth of light and modern conveniences would have on peoples minds.
My feeling is that people would have become more at one with the winter season. The mind would harmonise with the cold, dark sorrounds and at the same time the dependence on and interdependance with the community would have been keenly felt and celebrated. The sense of the other world becoming close and the ancestors drawing in would dominate as the seasons turned.
It seems to me that the magical and mystical element to Halloween was almost certainly stimulated by the easy availability of the psilocybin containing mushroom psilocybe semilanceata coloquilly known as the liberty cap in farmers fields around this time of year. While most people in Ireland today are relatively unaware of its easy availability and its use would still be frowned upon and illegal, it seems obvious to me that a rural peasantry, frequently pushed to the verge of starvation would have had knowledge of every type of mushroom and its effects and this would surely have included the liberty cap, which grows relatively abundently in the open fields where animals graze.
While many cultures have a similar festival on the precipice of winter, for example, the Mexican day of the dead, most of the traditions we associate with halloween are Irish customs which travelled with Irish emigrants to America, mostly in the late 19th century in the years following the great famine.
These include “trick or treating”, bobbing for apples and indeed carving pumpkins, although in Ireland it was turnips that were carved in to candle holders. The ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain would also have included communal bonfires and the wearing of costumes. Of course there was also the church involvement as they created ” all saints day” and ” all souls day” on November 1 and 2 respectively, in an effort to appropriate and influence the festivities.
So as you celebrate Halloween this year, remember that it is an ancient marking point towards the winter, a time of potential hardship and community interdependance but also marking a time of community abundance at harvest time. It is a time also perhaps to be humble about the otherworld and stay open to life’s mysteries and wonder. May you have an abundant and joyous celebration !