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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Between the Worlds Part Two

The Celts experienced the natural and supernatural as existing in very close proximity to each other, and it can be said that on the eve of Samhain -- a potent juncture or break in normal time -- they existed within each other.  Indeed, it was long believed that a child born on this night will have "double sight"; that is, he or she will be able to perceive and communicate with the Otherworld.  It was believed that at each transitional festival the Otherworld was temporarily upset.  As the juncture between the old and new year, Halloween brought a complete upheaval, and all the inhabitants of the other world were free for the night to work weal or woe on any humans they encountered.

This was the night when the usual boundaries between the dead and the living, the dark and the light, the spiritual realm and the natural world, were transcended.  As Christianity moved into the British Isles and Ireland it continued its time-honored policy of incorporating pagan holidays into the Christian calendar, and Samhain, the "festival of the dead," was redesignated All Saint's Day, in memory of the blessed dead.  Although filtered through Christianity, the traditional customs and beliefs survived in the celebration of All Hallow's Eve, or Hallowe'en.  (The word "hallow" derives from the Middle English halve, meaning "saint.")

The celebration of Halloween was not widespread in the United States until the 1840s, when great waves of Irish immigrants arrived...   
bringing the ancient Halloween traditions with them.

The beliefs and customs that surround Halloween today, and the images associated with it in our minds, have their roots in the old Irish/Scottish Celtic festival. 

Everyone knows that Halloween is the night when ghosts and skeletons and all sorts of mischievous spirits and terrifying creatures come out to roam freely for a night in the world of humans!  
The ancient Celts, and probably some of our not-so-ancient Victorian ancestors, believed that on Halloween the spirits of the dead roamed the land of the living.  The prehistoric burial mounds, the sidhs in Ireland, opened up and their inhabitants tried to lure the living to join them.  According to some accounts, the spirits came out of the Cave of Cruachan in Connaught, called the gate of hell, accompanied by copper-colored birds who killed farm animals and stole babies and brides.

The Little Folk
This was also the night on which the faeries were most powerful. 
In Irish folktales Halloween seems to be by far the most popular time for the abduction and bewitching of humans by these "little people."  
Those who had been taken away to fairyland could be rescued on the next Halloween by reciting a special spell or prayer as the fairies made their procession.  
Sir Walter Scott reported the belief that if a person circles a fairy hill nine times, counterclockwise, alone on Halloween, a door will open by which he can enter the fairy's abode.
The Victorian vision of fairies was a bit darker than ours tends to be, and they were often associated with Halloween.  In addition to sweet flower fairies, the Victorian Faeries or Fae included mischievous, impish creatures as well.

The most popular way of celebrating Halloween in the United States seems to be playing the part of the supernatural beings supposed to walk the earth on this night -- by dressing as spooks who go from house to house demanding sacrificial treats, and by playing pranks!  
There are numerous explanations as to how "trick-or-treating" originated.  The Druids (priests of the Celts) wore masks at their Samhain rituals to represent the spirits of the dead.  
Masks and costumes today are sometimes interpreted as a means of avoiding recognition by the spirits rather than a means of imitating them.  In Scotland, some "guisers," as they were called, blackened their faces instead of wearing masks.  This recalls the customs of blackening one's face with the ashes of the All Hallow's fires for protection and good fortune. 
Masks are part of sacred and magical rituals the world over.
Psychologically, masks and disguises can lessen inhibitions and give the wearer a sense of freedom and relaxation from usual social restrictions -- often a healthy and harmless break from our day-to-day lives.

Perhaps wearing costumes serves the purpose of letting us defy temporarily the boundaries of our everyday lives and "be someone else," perhaps act out parts of ourselves that we normally keep hidden.
And so normally mild-mannered moms dress as
exotic gypsy girls and ethereal mermaids and sexy witches -- or scary ones -- and children for a night are princesses and superheroes.
Why then do some of us dress as werewolves and vampires and big scary monsters?  One wonders what Freud would say..........
but it's probably all in fun!

Some say the original purpose of trick-or-treating was to gather food and money for the All Hallow's feast.  It has also been linked with "mumming," a custom practiced on other seasonal holidays as well, especially Yule (later Christmas), another ancient new year's celebration.

"Mumming" was a seasonal tradition in England and other parts of Europe, in which men donned masks and went from house to house demanding or begging for food.  Although often fun and humorous, it was surrounded by a mystical and magical air, and performed a seasonal holidays such as Yuletide.

Yule, the Winter Solstice and longest night of the year, is the new year festival of another seasonal calendar, based on the solar equinoxes and solstices.  The two calendars were eventually combined, and it is easy to see how some Yule customs could have become associated also with Halloween.

An interesting account from West Virginia reports that trick-or-treating began as "Belsnickling," a Christmas custom brought to the area by Pennsylvania Germans in the 1700s.  On Christmas Eve groups went about in disguise from house to house.  They knocked on the door, and when asked, "Who is it?" the leader replied, "Old Belsnickle."  After being invited in, anyone correctly identified behind their disguise had to do a "trick" -- sing a song, perform a dance, etc.  If no one was identified, the whole bunch was treated with food and drink.  (Of course, they were all treated anyway, no matter what happened!)  This custom is most probably a survival of mumming.  According to this account, Belsnickling was later adapted to Halloween and soon spread all over the country; the meaning of the world "trick," however, came to be a prank rather than some clever act.  (source: Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachians, by Patrick W. Gainer, Seneca Books)


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This article is an original work of authorship protected under copyright law, and it may not be copied in
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STAY TURNED FOR PART THREE -- all about jack-o-lanterns and bonfires and divination customs...

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