Monday, October 10, 2011

Lovely Frankenstein's 31 Days of Halloween: Where did Halloween Come from?

***Halloween has, in some religious and cultural communities, a profoundly negative reputation. This article seeks to be as neutral and respectful as possible in this regard. I will be making no personal judgement calls as I talk about different religious and spiritual belief systems regardless of they connotations they hold in Western society. I ask that is you choose to comment, that all comments be kept respectful for all.***

Yes, as though it weren't completely obvious, I'm a Halloween fanatic. Why? I think for me it's a mixture of things: I've always liked things that are a bit off color, a little weird and not what most people are drawn to. That I can't explain. Ever since I was a little kid I've been attracted to Halloween, that is, as soon as my Mom explained to me that mummies can't come back from the dead and eat you. Yes, I even liked Egyptian mummies as a little kid too. What can I say, I've always been weird :-) But after Mom cleared that little detail up, Halloween was my thing. October fall is one of my favorite times of year; it's not cold, but there is a definite chill in the air, and the air itself smells like fallen leaves. Yankee Candle, your "Autumn" smell has nothing on the real McCoy. But that late October by nature has a kind of spooky feel as everything just begins to transition to winter. The trees are almost bare, the foliage is dying, animals begin to hibernate, and the migratory birds are mostly gone. It's weirdly quiet, it's just a little creepy by nature, and I have always liked that. Again, there's no explanation for it, it just is what it is. But all of the Halloween things - the monsters, the pumpkins, the paranormal, the trick or treating (and now that I'm just a kid at heart, the trick or treaters), the thrill of being scared but in no real danger, the chance to for one day be something you could never be even with the help of the most advanced science, the entertaining, the tomfoolery, the cute, the funny, the dark and the scary - everything (well, everything non criminal), it appeals to me and gives me joy.

But much unlike other holidays and observances such as Christmas, Hannukah, Easter, or Ramadan, not much thought is given to the origins of Halloween and why we celebrate it much less why some of us love it. Depending on who you ask, Halloween is either a commercial candy company holiday, a dark devil-worshippy holiday or it's just a holiday made up so people have an excuse to dress up and act fools in a socially acceptable context. But even for a Halloween nut like me, the origins of the holiday and why it's as widespread as it is, is a little bit mysterious. I suppose that's also part of the appeal for many people - we don't know WHY we celebrate it with ghosts and bats and pumpkins, we just do! But here is a little bit of history into the origins of Halloween.

Halloween can be, at its earliest, loosely attributed to Celtic Pagan observance of Samhain (pronounced SOW-inn), the Feast of the Dead, though this prospect is the subject of debate through the historical and religious communities. In Celtic Pagan belief, the Feast of the Dead is to honor and celebrate those who have passed - for them, it was not a morbid affair - and it was believed that the barrier between the living world and the spirit world is the thinnest at the end of October and beginning of November. The Feast of the Dead is held to allow the spirits of loved ones when they are most able to pass between world to celebrate with those who are still living.  With the spirits present, it was believed that they brought knowledge of the future. Druid priests would try to determine the future, and the Pagan at the celebration would dress up and try to tell each others fortunes for entertainment. Though death and the dead were the focus of this celebration, it wasn't not all about spirits. For the Pagans, death symbolized transition and changes in ones life, and Samhain was the time to take stock of one's life and consider the changes that have occurred or that must be made. Modern day Pagans still celebrate this holiday, though the rituals and observances have altered to reflect their culture changes over the years.

Over hundreds of years, the Celtic tradition of Samhain became subject to the burgeoning Catholic influence over the region, much as the Celtic people themselves. Samhain was replaced by a the Christian paradigm in the form of All Hallows Eve (October 31), All Saint's Day (November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2). The Church retained the timing of Samhain while replacing the spirits and fortune telling with Catholic stories and practices. The Halloween we know is a combination of all three. All Hallows Eve is when the souls lost to Purgatory were said to roam the earth, and so fires were lit to keep the spirits at bay. All Saints Day was a day of observance for the Saints who died as matryrs in the name of Jesus Christ and the Church. All Souls say was the day of prayer for the souls all of the dead. As time progressed, ouside of the Catholic Church, the three days of observance were combined into one Halloween.

So then knowing that, why do we dress up, hand out candy, and willingly surround ourselves with all things spooky? Well, those Halloween traditions are a story for another day.

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