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Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Origins of Halloween Customs, Part One

October already? It's hard to believe, but the brisk morning air, bright blue sky, falling leaves, and squawking bluejays say that it's true.  With Halloween approaching, here is the first installment of our special article on the origins of Halloween customs...

Between the Worlds... Part One
(All text is copyrighted, please do not copy or use without permission.)

Halloween is a holiday familiar to all Americans.  Children disguised as ghosts and goblins (and superheroes and princesses) roam the streets trick-or-treating; teenagers play pranks and try to frighten themselves with trips to the graveyard and scary movies; young girls may attempt by various means of divination to learn of their future husbands; and generally everyone has a good time drinking cider (or something harder), bobbing for apples, wearing costumes, and waiting for "the witching hour."  But....

it seems few people know of
the origins of Halloween
and its wonderful mood of magic and fright.

Among the ancient Celtic peoples of Britain, the end of October was marked by the festival of Samhain.  Samhain (sometimes translated hesitantly as "summer's end") was one of four major yearly festivals of the Celtic calendar.  As the life of these people was embedded in and dependent upon the cycles of nature, their calendar was based on the movement of the seasons.  The festivals can be seen as recognizing and celebrating important transition point in the seasonal year.  


February 2

May 1

August 1
Samhaim (All Hallow's)
Celtic New Year

Imbolc or Brigid (Candlemas)

Beltane (May Day)

Lughnasa (Lammas)

Ancient Holiday Festivals
The Celts measured time primarily by the moon, and these four festivals may be compared to the lunar stages.  Candlemas recognized the waxing (growth) of the year, Beltane the fullness, and Lammas the waning, while Samhain celebrated the new or dark moon, both the end and the beginning of the cycle.

In the Celtic calendar (as many other ancient calendars) a "day" began at sunset the day before, and holiday observations began on the "eve."  As a survival of this world view, we celebrate All Hallow's Eve and Christmas Eve!  Jewish holidays similarly begin at sunset.  Imbolc, later Christianized as Candlemas, celebrated the beginnings of the return of the light and warmth of the sun.  It was thought to be the best time for predicting the weather of the coming spring -- a belief that survives today in Groundhog Day.  Beltane or May Day signified the beginning of summer, a time of warmth, abundance, and fertility.  Lughnasa, later known as Lammas, was the harvest festival in these northern lands, a time of gathering in -- of enjoying the fruits of summer and beginning preparations for the long winter ahead.

Samhain (beginning at sundown on October 31) was the Celtic new year festival, and the most powerful transition of the year.   
It marked the end of one year and the beginning of another, and the entry of winter.  The waning light and warmth of the sun gives way to darkness and cold.  The harvest was completed and crops were put away for the winter.  As the time of the death of the old year, Samhain was the appropriate time to remember the dead; their spirits were believed to return to earth on this night. 
Samhain symbolized death -- death which is not final but rather a dark incubation necessary before rebirth in the spring.  Although it has come to us altered by time, by Christianity and eventually by modern commercialism,

the essential character and wisdom of the ancient festival is reflected in the imagery and celebrations of Halloween.


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This article is an original work of authorship protected under copyright law, and it may not be copied in
whole or in part without permission of the author and copyright holder.

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