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The Origins of Halloween (Advanced reading)

It was a dark night at the end of the summer, hundreds of years ago, when our Celtic ancestors celebrated the autumn Sabbath known as Samhain (pronounced “Sow-In”) – the Witches New Year.

In those days, autumn was a time for harvesting the last of the crops, feasting and celebrating the end of the year. This was well before our modern form of calendar was created, and many people simply considered autumn to be the end of the year, as the season quickly changes into winter – the time of “great death“. Winter was the time when snow blanketed the ground, chilling crops, animals and people to the bone. No sustainable crops were able to be grown in winter, so the fall harvest season was especially important. The bounty that came in at the end of the year was a forecast of how well a family would do over the winter. If the crops were plentiful, they would likely have an easier time over the cold months. If the crops were meager due to fire, flood or not enough nutrients in the soil, then the winter would be hard.

Back then, the rumor was, that during the end of the year, when the earth traveled from the busy autumn season into the dead of winter, that the etheric veil between our world and the otherworld’s, would be lifted in order to make the transition possible. During this transition, it was believed that entities and spirits that would not normally be able to co-exist on this wave-length with us, could cross over and create all sorts of mischief. Now, before the christian era took over, this time of year was a time of celebration. The clans and tribes of western Europe – who began the traditions followed by most Canadian, American and European cultures to this day – thought of the transition as a powerful time to make connections with higher deities, and to use various forms of magic to safe guard them over the winter. This was because most of the dogmas of that time, worshipped the moon. During the autumn season, the largest and most colorful full moon, the Harvest Moon, can be seen taking over the night sky. It was because the harvest moon appears on different days of the year, that the Halloween of that era, was not on any specific day. It came when the crops were all picked, and the moon was full in the fall.

Now, as the cultural times began to change, and Abrahamic religions had seriously spread across western Europe, the silly faeries, malevolent gnomes, strange but harmless ghosts and funny little brownies that were once an aid to farmers and hunters – soon became dangerous little demons, frightening specters and devious spirits that could harm crops, steal children and scare the skin color out of the most courageous person. It was the fear of even stranger and scarier beings coming through the weakened veil in the fall, which inspired the tradition of wearing masks and dawning costumes. It was thought, at the time, that by dressing up as ghoulish goblins, creepy creatures, strange animals, fairies and other not-human beings, that we could trick the dangerous spirits into believing they were not in our realm. It was this theory that had adults and children wearing masks and costumes, if they were planning any ventures outside of their homes on all hallows eve.

Over time our cultures evolved and spread across the earth, taking their traditions with them. It was the Irish, Scottish and Welsh who had brought the most influence to Canada and America, when it comes to holidays like Halloween. Some of those customs evolved into the traditions we know today.

Trick or Treating used to be a druidic custom when it first began. Because of the belief that malevolent spirits would try to play tricks on you when the veil between the worlds is so thin (tricks that could result in harsh winters and destroyed harvests), they gave treats to the druids, asking them to bless their homes and appease the spirits so they would leave them alone. Now, the treats of that age were certainly not the over-processed sugar filled sweets that we see today. They were eggs, butter, apples, cheese, breadcake, money and barnbrack (a special fruitcake). These were seen as items that the wayward spirits and strange other beings, would eat or use and be sated enough to leave the people alone. As time went on, and the druids were pushed out of society, a new but similar tradition took hold, where beggars would go around to the people’s doors and receive “soul cakes” in exchange for their prayers. The more cakes the beggars got, the more prayers they sent out for the passed loved ones of the folks who handed out the bread cakes. It was believed that the more prayers that were said for a recently dead loved one, the more likely they were to make a safe passage into their next life.

Bobbing for Apples, Riding Broomsticks, Big Bonfires and Halloween Masquerade were all traditions carried over from Celtic times. Interestingly enough, the use of Pumpkins was one of the largest differences between the original Celtic traditions and the newer Canadian and American traditions. In Ireland, children used to carve jack-o-lanterns out of potatoes and turnips, as a way of remembering the dead. They didn’t have Pumpkins, as it is primarily a fruit that grows here in North America. Sometime after pumpkins were discovered by a French explorer, they began to replace potatoes in the North American version of Halloween. Now we can clearly see them decorating our communities in the forms of lit up jack-o-lanterns, candy buckets and cute little baby costumes.

All in all, Halloween is a tradition that has stood the test of the ages. It has changed and changed again, and will continue to do so, as we do, yet forever hold on to its origins. As we know it today, it is still a time for remembrance and winter preparations, though for the most part, it’s just fun.

References:

Samhain – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain

 

Exercise:

– list all the phrases and words that are new to you.  Find the meanings and make two additional sentences using the pattern or word.

Comprehension:

  1. In your own words, summarize the origin of trick or treating.
  2. Why do you think Sowin marked the ‘witch’s new year’?
  3. Why do we carve jack-o-lanterns now and why do we use pumpkins?
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