Last Sunday, I accepted an invitation to speak during the "Feast of Fools" open mic event at Catland. The theme of the night was appropriately enough, "Halloween". While the other speakers were aiming for stories of regaling the macabre, I chose to get nerdy and academic. I was given fifteen minutes to present and having been preparing for the Halloween parade, Samhain ritual and the upcoming season in general by reading, I was able to give a pretty decent talk. (In my own humble opinion of course). Here are the notes which I had prepared for the talk, and which basically cover everything I said, if not the way I said it.
When diving down the rabbit hole of history, we can pretty much find the origins of Halloween in Ireland. Mostly. Well, for certain the British Isles. So why is it here in America? For the most part, Americans are descended from Europeans, specifically as a set of former British colonies, our ancestors are from those islands. This city, New York, is arguably the largest Irish city on the planet and due to its long-standing influence over culture of this country, Halloween is remained a prominent folk festival.
A folk festival is an occasion which influences people through all walks of life; young, old, rich, poor, powerful and those who are out of power. Halloween as it is practiced today has an affect on everyone in some shape or form. On the way over to this event, I passed three stores which only exist at this time of year to rent out costumes and props. Every branch of major pharmacy chains has an aisle or section dedicated to seasonal items; these are full of candies and decoration made specifically to celebrate Halloween.
So, what is Halloween? What did it come from and why do we still celebrate it?
First, I'd like to throw this little nugget of information I have recently discovered; the word legend means "what one should pass on." While we have passed on the traditions of dressing up in ghoulish ways, begging for treats and many other things, the legend of Halloween has been scraped away and we are left only with the practices. Now, everyone knows that Halloween is scheduled for Oct 31st but this was not the case with the Celtic people who originated the festival. The Celts followed a very different calendar than the Gregorian update to the calendar created by Julius Caesar which we use in civil society today. They started counted a new day when the sun went down. Their months began on the Full Moon. While I have yet to go to Ireland or the rest of the British Isles for any significant period of time, I have been told that there are basically two seasons there. The first is full of light and is warm and summery, while the second is dark, cold and wintery. These two seasons are aptly called the Light Half and the Dark Half. The Celtic New Year began when the Light Half of the year gave way to the Dark Half.
The Paleo Druids of the Celtic people were well aware of the movement of the stars, including the importance of the Sun, but because of the agricultural dependency on the change of seasons, they set the major folk festivals not by the Solstices and Equinoxes but at the beginning and middle of the Light/Dark seasons. Thus, Imbolc was in the middle of the Dark Half, Beltaine was the beginning of the Light Half, Lughnasadh was the middle of the Light Half and Samhain was the beginning of the Dark Half. Samhain was also the New Year. This festival was one of obligation. Under geas, a compelling magical incantation, you had to attend Samhain's festivities. This was practical, for the manner in which the Celtic society was set up, all the wealth in the cattle stock, all the food for the cattle stock, the pigs, the grains, the lands, were divided up by the King and distributed at Samhain. If you didn't show up, you didn't get your share. Samhain was also a time when all disputes were settled or at least suspended. If you started a fight or assaulted someone else during Samhain, you were put to death and only the King could pardon you, and that was not likely to happen as he was very busy dividing up wealth and conducting religious rituals.
Samhain was a time of great legislative renewal. The laws of the land were renewed. Power was renewed, Contracts with cattleherders, warriors, smiths, artisans, and other classes of specialists were renewed. The King's power was renewed. These took place over the three days before and after the Full Moon, so the whole of society could be addressed.
There is a name by which we can describe the festival of Samhain, the Feast of Immortality. For the Celts, believed that there was an Otherworld. This Otherworld was right here on top, beside, beneath and simultaneously sharing space with this world. I like to think of this as another aspect of modern physics' concepts of the Multiverse. While we live in a Universe with Earth the way it is (Ue), there is quite probably a Universe in which the only difference between Ue and Ux could be a minor difference, for example in Ux the premier artistic genius of the twentieth century might be named Adolf Hitler and the fascist dictator who murder so many innocents was named Pablo Picasso. In this vein of thinking, it is possible that the Otherworld is Universe Prime (U0), a place inhabited by concepts such as Plato's Ideals or Jungian Archetypes. Certainly, the Celts believed that people lived there, and that these people had special powers. They also believed that there were four times a year when anyone on either side of the divide between this World and the Otherworld could cross over, and the time which this was most easily carried out was during Samhain.
The Feast of Immortality was celebration of excess in order to achieve the state necessary to cross over into the Otherworld and to live forever. They over consumed pork, for eating pigs was sure to give you immortality. They ate apples, for these magical fruit were symbols of immortality. They over consumed meadfor this sweet alcoholic beverage was said to inspire a state of drunkeness which would unhook the grasp on this world and allow one to pass into the Otherworld. There are countless stories, myths and legends in Celtic lore which depict a hero, king or god going into the Otherworld, performing some task which helps the people there get rid of their demons and then returning to this World with special powers. There are also stories of sacrifices made during these festivals, great men in society who had their heads thrust into great cauldrons in order to pass into the Otherworld or having their heads severed. We see these reflected in the traditions of bobbing for apples and carving ghoulish jack o'lanterns. These sacrifaces were offered in order to renew the power of the tribes, in order to regain or establish the King's authority.
So, On the Full Moon when the Light Half gave way to the Dark Half of the year, Samhain was a folk festival of renewal and regeneration. It was an opportunity for anyone to go into the Otherworld and become a Hero. It was a time when any person could become Immortal. So you can see how this grand festival which happened year after year and involved all people, was a doctrinal nightmare for those in charge or setting the liturgical calendar for the monotheistic church. There was no way that they could stop the entire population of several rather large islands from holding these celebrations. So they just stated that November 1st is All Hallows Day, the day for recognizing all people who have lived or will live and November 2nd is All Saint's Day and when we recognize all saints past, present and future. Then they stated that the things which occurred on All Hallow's Eve were the work of demons and were diabolical sins. If you have ever heard a good Cockney accent then you can easily see how "All Hallow's Eve" gets turned into "Halloween." And that is how we got here.
If you are interested in a deeper study of this, I would highly suggest reading "The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween" by Jean Markale. I got many if not most of my information from reading this over the past few weeks.