The Day of the Dead
Hallowe’en has its roots in the ancient Celtic Druid tradition, long before Christianity reached the shores of Ireland. Hallowe’en, rightly called Samhain (meaning Summer’s End), was harvest time, the time when the crops must all be in, the apples picked and all made ready for the long, cold winter ahead.
It was also one of the four great Celtic Fire festivals marking the turning of the seasons, the festivals falling between the Equinoxes and the Solstices. Two of these festivals were of male energy (Samhain and Beltane) and two held female energy (Imbolc and Lughnasadh). Each was celebrated for three days.
At Samhain, all the fires in the land were extinguished and then torches were lit from the great fire kindled by the chief Druid. In Ireland, this fire was lit on the Hill of Tara. Representatives of the five provinces would gather and torches lit from the bonfire would be carried home to relight the fires for the coming year. Thus Hallowe’en carries with it the idea of death and rebirth.
But what would a Celtic festival be without a party? Aside from the formal ceremonies, there would also be fairs, markets, horse racing, political discussions and naturally, a good amount of eating and drinking.
The Celts were very fond of the notion of betwixt and between, of the gateway from one state to another and accordingly, at Samhain, the veil between this world and the Otherworld (the Sidh) grows very thin. We have one foot in each world and we are in neither and both, at the same time. The spirits of the dead walk abroad at Samhain and may cause mischief, if not welcomed and appeased.
In older times, food and drink would be set out for dead ancestors and others, particularly those who had passed since the last Samhain. Sometimes, places would be set at the table for these spirits.
To protect themselves from possible harm (not all spirits might have your best interests at heart) people would don disguises and masks, so they would not be recognized. The “trick or treat” idea obviously comes from the need to appease the spirits, so they would not harm you in any way. (“Help the Hallowe’en party” does not have quite the same ring to it!)
So the bonfire has been very much a part of tradition since the earliest times, as have costumes and masks.
But if the faery folk, the spirits and the dead can walk in our world at Hallowe’en, so may we cross more easily into their territory. Therefore at Samhain there is a Druidic tradition of ritual fortune telling, continuing to this day. Some also like to attempt deliberate contact with those who have passed, whether through a medium or other means. More simply, we also like to visit the graves of those we have loved, to bring flowers and to remember them.
Samhain, like so many pagan festivals, was sanitized when Christianity challenged the ancient Celtic traditions and became All Saints Day, followed by All Souls Day
But tradition dies hard. Will you be lighting your sacred fire and scaring away the spirits in your Hallowe’en costume? Me too!