Friday, March 4, 2011

Halloween history (From the Archives)

WWW, 2006 (Archived) - BOBBING for apples, trick or treating, carving Jack-O'-Lanterns, Halloween has many weird and wonderful traditions - but why do we have them at all?

Despite popular belief, Halloween is not just another American import (although the overwhelming explosion of sugared up little runts shouting "Trick or Treat!" at us may well be), it is actually a very British and European affair.

For thousands of years, the ancient Celts celebrated Halloween - or Samhain as it is truly known, as one of the most important dates of the Celtic faith.

Like us, the Celts divided the year into four seasons: Samhain (winter), Imbolc (spring), Beltane (summer), and Lughnasadh (autumn). But their year began and ended on the first of November due to the fact that they followed the agricultural year which began and ended in autumn when the crops had been harvested and the soil prepared for the winter months.

In Gaelic, Samhain actually means 'summer's end'.

Samhain marked the Gaelic New Year, the turning of the season from summer into winter - an important time of preparation and gathering for people as they got ready to face the harsher winter months ahead.

For the Celts this last harvest of the year had a deeply spiritual significance - the death of the summer into winter continued the cycle of re-birth that would eventually see the cycle of life begin anew next year.

It was a time of reflection and celebration for all those who had lived and died before and it was widely believed that the barrier that separated the world of the living from the realm of the dead was at its thinnest at Samhain - hence the names All Soul's Night or All Hallows Eve.

This was a time of celebration when the dead were encouraged to return to the great feasts with the living - in Ireland this was known as the Fleadh nan Mairbh (Feast of the Dead) .

Offerings of food were also left outside homes for any hungry spirits who happened to pass by, (this is probably the beginning of trick-or-treat).

Communion with the dead was an important part of the Celts' system of beliefs, but the rise of Christianity and the growing power of the church brought an increasing intolerance towards the old ways.

Samhain was gradually vilified as the evil work of dark witches and wizards - hence the now familiar images of the hag racing across the sky on a broomstick with a black cat in tow.

Divination - prediction or fortune telling - was also popularly practiced at this strongly magical time of year.

Entire villages would gather to make sacrifices to their Goddess and God in the form of the bones of slaughtered cattle they would ritually burn on huge bonfires (or bone fires as they were known a long time before Guy Fawkes took a trip to Parliament).

Lanterns were carved out of turnips (or pumpkins) to give light before the bonfires were lit.

All households symbolically extinguished their old fires, which were then re-lit with flames carried in the lanterns from the bonfires as a symbol of good luck and prosperity for the coming year.

According to Irish mythology, the lanterns also have a spiritual significance.

Because of the shimmering flames inside the lanterns, it was supposed that the candles were being touched by ghostly visitors - this is probably how the tradition of carving frightening faces on them came from, to welcome friendly spirits and repel the malevolent ones.

Apples were also very important in the Celtic tradition. There are literally hundreds of songs and tales in all Celtic races of heroes crossing the western sea on quests to find golden magical apples which gave their finders wondrous powers - to live without grief or sorrow, to have life without death, without any sickness and without weakness.

In Ireland the Other world land of Emhain Abhlach, (the Isle of Apple Trees) and in Britain, Avalon, were said to host these magical treasures of the Goddess and Gods.

So the apple harvest at Samhain had great importance, and bobbing for apples was the traditional way of reliving those tales and calling on potent apple magic as a blessing for the new year.


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