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What’s the day all about? Fear? Fun? Death? Learning?

It’s the end of October. The leaves are falling from the trees. The days are cooler and the nights are colder. Decorations of orange and black mysteriously appear in our local stores and banks. Hallowe’en is coming.

But what’s it all about? What does Hallowe’en mean, today?  When most people think of Hallowe’en, they think of children getting excited about a costume they’re going to wear, and all the food and candy. Adults chat about the popular costumes this year – a current political character, or other infamous individual -- and which party to attend. Police get prepared for the possibility of additional crimes and poisonings during this night when so many people will be out on the streets.

But still, why do we celebrate this holiday? Is it simply a night of "fun"? How did this get started?

Historically, Hallowe’en had to do with the dead, with ghosts, with spirits. Let’s turn back the clock a bit to explore the roots of this All Hallow’s Eve.

To the ancient Celts, there were six significant fire ceremonies during the year. The greatest of these were Beltane, the first of May, and Samhain, the last day in October. (Originally, Samhain was celebrated from October 31 through November 2). The Feast of Samhain (meaning "summer’s end"), marked both their Feast of the Dead and the Celtic New Year. This time of the year, half way between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, was a time of decay and death on the earth. This was especially apparent in Western Europe, when the temperatures dropped and the rains fell. Take a walk in the woods or fields and you smell the decay of rotting leaves and fungus. Samhain ushered in the darkest and most barren time of the year. It was a time when the spirits of the recently departed – as well as other disincarnate entities -- were believed to be out and about, with easier access to humans.

Fire ceremonies, during which animal and even human sacrifices were made, were performed in the belief that they’d protect the crops and flocks from demonic influence.

Throughout much of Europe in past centuries, country people (nearly everyone) lived simple lives, and their Old Religion was based on the seasons, and on the recognition of the reality of the spirit world. They relied on their Old Religion with its ritualistic ceremonies for help and for guidance. They believed that on the Feast of Samhain, the spirits of their ancestors could and would rise from the cold barren fields to dwell in the warm cottages. There they must be greeted with food, decoration, and festivity if they were to protect the household.

Special days to remember the dead are common in most cultures. Obon in Japan commemorates the ancestors. Native Americans had special days to remember the departed. In Mexico, this is the Day of the Dead.

Another variation of the commemoration of the Feast of Samhain involved making offerings to those dis-incarnate spirits which were deemed malicious. Thus, in its origin, the Feast of Samhain was a rite designed to protect humans from the "evil" activities of the dis-incarnate. It was a bargain with the dead (and other spirits) so they’d stay away and cause no trouble during the next year.

In the 700s, the Roman Catholic Church authorities accepted the fact that they had failed in their attempts to eliminate the "pagan" Samhain observances within the now-Christianized world. Thus, as has often occurred when New Religion clashed with Old Religion, the names of the holy days were simply changed. For example, the Winter Solstice commemoration became Christmas, Ihstar became Easter, and feast of Samhain became the Hallowed Eve, or Holy Eve, which we today call Hallowe’en. This way, the Old Religion practice of Samhain could continue, but now it was a Catholic holy day. As a result, the members of the Catholic church were maintained, everyone was happy, and things went on as usual.

According to Ralph Linton, author of Halloween Through Twenty Centuries, "All Saints Day was introduced into the church calendar because the year was not long enough to make it possible to dedicate a special day for each spirit of the Catholic Church… That the day chosen was one already associated in the popular mind with the thronging of spirits of the dead was quite in line with church policy of incorporating harmless pagan folk ideas."

Throughout the years, "holy day" became "holiday," and it developed into a time of frivolities and merrymaking. By the turn of the previous century, Hallowe’en had become an evening for soaping windows, pushing over outhouses, and general "hell-raising." (Were the teenagers and children the proxies for the "evil spirits"?) Though outhouses are not seen anymore, there is still plenty of hell-raising as the police get ready for such activities as toilet-papering, egg throwing, and worse.

The original custom of giving to the spirits spread through all cultures and lands with many variations. Today, the custom manifests by giving candy to the proxies of the spirits, the children who dress up like goblins and witches -- as well as whatever politician’s masks are popular. (By contrast, in Mexico’s Day of the Dead, there is no intent to keep the spirits away. The deceased spirits are invited back to be remembered and honored.)

The widespread practice of Hallowe’en today is the carryover remnant when we all accepted the reality of spirits, or entities which our eyes do not see.

When I discussed the history of this day with a parent one year, she told me I was silly. "Maybe the ancient Celts worshipped the dead on Halloween," she retorted, "but that’s not what I do." Of course! She was simply mindlessly going along with the mob.

Unlike some religious groups who advocate complete abstinence from any (so-called "pagan") Hallowe’en celebrations, my posture is not to turn a blind eye to what society is doing, but to find a way to elevate the day to one of personal growth and insight.

So what are some practical lessons we might learn from Hallowe’en?

In past years, my family and friends have gathered through our non-profit corporation (see www.wtinc.info) to view the classic "vampire" movie "Nosferatu," both the orgiinal and the 1978 Klaus Kinsie version. We gathered with large bowls of popcorn, and other refreshments, and explored the nature of fear. We remained focussed on finding the science within that movie as to how to deal with our own inner fears. Additionally, "Nosferatu" provides a pictorial view of how each of us succumb to our weaknesses, and how we "become someone else." There’s no need to couch any of this in religious terms, or guilt. We looked at the movie as a symbolic depiction of one of the ways in which our world actually operates. We looked at the movie as a symbol for our daily life, and we explored the many ways in which we should protect ourselves from the myriad "bloodsuckers" that seem to surround us in modern life.

We weren’t trying to scare adults into believing that a real Count Dracula might lurch out from behind a tree on some dark trail. Rather, we discussed the Dracula-pattern within each of us: how we vampirize each other at work and at home, how most people routinely "drink each other’s blood," how we passively enjoy it when someone else "sucks our blood," and so forth. When viewed in that light, it’s obvious that these are daily activities in everytown, U.S.A., though often guised as "shrewd business practices" or "gossipping" or "just being a good lawyer," or "part of normal daily life," et al.

Another way to elevate our use of this Hallowe’en time is to re-consider our use of costumes. Do we not invoke the presence of those persons we choose to masquerade as? Rather than invoke the presence of dark entities, why not dress up as our role models, or Heroes, and Saints. Children – and especially adults – can use this time to invoke the presence of such historical great figures such as Florence Nightingale, Gandhi, Sequoia, Deganawida, Kukulkan, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, or Abraham Lincoln.

By utilizing the ancient Holy Day of Samhain in this manner, we can rise out of the darkness of our own ignorance. By such practice, we return to the roots of this ancient commemoration which we today call Hallowe’en.

And you needn’t be dressed in white robes on the plains of Stonehenge with Celtic priests in order to observe this day in a more elevated manner. You can cannily do so in your own living room, in front of the "far-seeing magic lantern," assembled with your friends and family.


[written 2005]