We know the familiar signs. The days get shorter, the nights longer. A chill begins to manifest in the air. Dead leaves carpet the ground.
As sensual creatures, we feel deep within us that something has changed. That time has passed, and that habits and routines once kept must be put away and new ones adopted.
Our ancestors, too, saw all that we see – and it is after them and their wisdom that we follow the wheel of the year that eternally turns. Our forefathers knew that Summer, long grown old, has breathed her last in one fragrant, contented sigh. Autumn, beautiful in her own way, emerges from the corpse of Summer, as she must.
With the Autumn equinox, light and darkness – night and day – were balanced. But with the approach of Halloween, the world humbly accepts that it is time to prepare the stage for darkness to hold sway.
Hollantide. Hallowmas. All Hallow’s Eve. Samhain. Many names for what is ultimately a concept that is universal. All of these and more celebrate the acceptance of the march of Winter, and the reign of darkness – both sacred and ominous.
This Halloween, I thought we’d scrutinize the holiday for what it truly is beyond the light hearted parties and the rampant commercialism. Put down the cloak and candy, light up your jack-o’-lantern. Pour yourself some hot cider, find a dimly lit room where you can reflect, and listen…
Listen to the wind outside. It scatters the dead leaves and whispers. Rustling that resemble feet, a dress dragging through, a cloak stirring up the leaves. It’s dim, and dark. There’s only the light from the candle, there is only the heat from the room, without which you would shiver being exposed to the chill of the wind outside. There are the gifts from the harvest – the pumpkin, the cider, the wood for your fire – without which you would not make it through the coming Winter and its frost and cold and barren fields. Out there, before their fires, like you, are family and neighbours without whose helping hands and warm smiles the coming season would be difficult to push through. And here, in the gathering darkness and gloom, who is to say that you are not being looked upon by those who came before you – many of whom may not have made it through a harvest to enjoy a warm cider, who may have been lost in the cold depths of Winter to old age or sickness. To whom life may not have been as kind…
It is only little sensual reminders like this that make us realize why our ancestors thought of Halloween or Samhain the way that they did, and why we do not, today. Why the festival encouraged gratitude for a harvest – for enough food to make it through the Winter so that our forefathers and their families did not starve – why it fostered closely knit communities, why it persuaded us to a belief in the otherworldly, why it coaxed us to contemplate death, and why it may have fostered chaos in mummery and pranks.
Samhain, the ancient predecessor of Halloween, Nicholas Rogers writes in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, was ‘the occasion of stock-taking and in
gathering, of reorganizing communities for the winter months, including the preparation of quarters for itinerant warriors and shamans. It was also a period of supernatural intensity, when the forces of darkness and decay were said to be abroad, spilling out from the sidh, the ancient mounds or barrows of the countryside.‘
To ward off the spirits, huge symbolically regenerative bonfires were lit, lamps and candles were kept alight, and the help of the old gods were invoked through animal and perhaps human sacrifices (the latter is disputed but not entirely ruled out).
While it is true that due to it’s preparing the way for Winter, Samhain was associated with darkness and the supernatural, any form of ancestor worship during this time was unlikely. Those associations must be credited to the church, with its creation of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. Samhain bore a simpler, more primal message. ‘In Celtic lore, winter was the dark time of the year when “nature is asleep, summer has returned to the underworld, and the earth is desolate and inhospitable,“‘ writes Rogers.
Within this liminal space of night taking over day, the veil between the real and otherworld was believed to blur, and the fae folk would be capable of interacting with human beings and causing mischief. Rather unsurprisingly, the long nights made story-telling and divination games one of the more amusing ways to pass the time, and this practice seems to have survived the festival’s later absorption into Christian.
The association of Halloween with death occurred when the Christianity doubled down on the festival, and – as it does – incorporated many of the practices into its liturgical celebrations. Most of the ritualistic practices we associate with Halloween today stemmed from the medieval observances of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, both of which were late arrivals to the already-established cycle of Christian holidays.
Thus, All Soul’s Day, held on the second day of November, was heralded by bell-ringing for the souls in purgatory, and prayers and penance were offered up in hope of their eventual deliverance. In some parts of Europe, such as Naples, charnel houses containing the bones and bodies of the deceased were opened to the public, and decorated with flowers. These drew crowds of people who would visit the remains of friends and relatives, and the practice would arguably serve as a memento mori – a reminder of death, which would grow in popularity in the middle ages, and of which we still find echoes of in the popularity of the symbol of the Grim Reaper today.
A festival celebrated between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, Samhain was bound to be centered around the very last Harvest. November and December would bring the frost that would kill any crops that stood out in the fields, and so all that was planted must be brought in. This would explain the stock-taking commonly associated with Samhain: you’ve got to make sure that there’s enough in the pantry if you intend on waiting out the Winter in a cottage.
Even after the subsequent Christianization of the Celtic festival, this celebration of the last harvest and plenty carried forward every year, and, in fact, might have been one of the undiluted traditions of Samhain practiced even until a few centuries ago. One of these rituals, carried out in the corn-growing regions of Britain, was the cutting of the
cailleach, the “hag,” or last sheaf. This ritual would mark the beginning of the Hallowtide, and the following supper would then compromise of grain or fruit-based foods. Potatoes were commonly incorporated into the meal in the form of champ (mashed potatoes with milk, butter and leeks), colcannon (mashed potatoes with cabbage) or boxty (fried colcannon).
Rogers tells us that ‘within the agricultural cycle, Halloween was traditionally a time for renewing leases; hiring laborers; rethatching cottages; gathering crops, nuts, fruit, and peat; and slaughtering animals.‘ Unfinished jobs had to be completed and tidied away in preparation for the Winter, and this included replenishing the pantry and making sure the house was in sound condition. After all, with the year’s reaping done, people’s attentions turned to hearth and home and making these as comfortable as possible against the coming cold.
Death and Harvest time. What an odd pair they make. And yet, they are not wholly estranged.
Nature’s bounty had given much in Autumn to last the harsh winter months. Each stalk of wheat or sheaf of corn was cropped for the consumption of Man to feed himself and his kin. And yet, while the festival encouraged revelry and mirth amidst Nature’s bounty, the act of harvesting served as a looming metaphor.
Halloween’s focus on Death – which is now sadly decried by both Christian fundamentalists and some famous New Historicists (yes, I’m looking at you, Stephen Greenblatt) was intended as sobering and humbling instead of gloomy or depressive. An extension of the metaphor of the harvest, Death was also a reaping for many, except in this case, it is souls that are clipped by the sickle of Time. Winter was a harsh season to get through for our ancestors. It brought with it cold, starvation, sickness and very often, death. There was no telling who would survive and who would not, and so everybody – be it old or young, man or woman, rich or poor – would have to prepare. We are all a fair harvest for the Great Reaper.
Possibly the greatest loss in this festival’s history has been its adaptation to modernity. There is very little that is genuine that can be squeezed out of today’s version of Halloween, and perhaps that is merely the fault of Time, and none else.
After all, the large portion of the western world lives not in agrarian societies, out in the countryside – but in cities, and therefore have either a diminished consciousness or complete disregard of the changing of the seasons and their relationship with the land. There is more conscious thought put into the buying of candy and the choice of Halloween costume than goes into the contemplation of what is truly being celebrated.
One of the results of this disconnect is our worrying dissociation with Death. In an interview with BBC, historian Helen Castor admitted that people in the middle ages were better at handling death than we are now. She says, ‘In the Middle Ages you had ritual and collective understanding. Death was a supported and shared experience. Everyone had an interest in helping people to have ‘a good death’, because they hoped they in turn would be helped also. You didn’t have the isolation and denial we feel in relation to death today.’
Here and there, we do find vestiges of the old in Halloween, though. The obsession with death and dying that we saw in the ritualized practices of pre-reformation Europe now finds a small albeit superficial voice in the media industry: Hollywood releases a film in the horror genre at the end of October almost every year. Pumpkin carving still remains a favorite activity, and the Jack-O’-Lantern still retains its hold on the holiday with few people realizing that they are crafting an adaptation of the ‘old custom of commemorating souls in purgatory with candles cradled in turnips‘ (Rogers). Dressing up, contrary to what many think, has been a Halloween tradition for many years, as has versions of trick-or-treating. Mummers and beggars were known to visit homes and perform or beg for gifts.
However, the real purpose of Halloween, being a festival of revelry, but also gratitude and reflection, has vanished. Some have attempted to replicate traditional Samhain celebrations in the effort of regaining that connection with the wheel of the year, while others have given up entirely on recognizing Halloween amidst the secular humdrum of existence. One looks all the way back, the other far ahead into the future, and who is to hazard a guess on which of these positions is superior?
Ultimately, the purpose of Samhain or Halloween, or any other iteration of this festival is to help Man understand himself and the balance that he exists within in Nature. If we strive for that as our ultimate purpose as a species, embracing an evolving tradition would be a small price to pay for the benefits. Part of that embracing is being aware of the subtle symbolism in modern day rituals that play themselves out before our own eyes. In his video on the symbolism of modern Halloween, Jonathan Pageau explains the underlying meaning behind trick-or-treating as ‘placating the demons’ in our lives: we do not invite the little zombies and vampires into our homes, but we do not shoo them away, either. Instead, we give them a little something at the door to satiate them enough that they won’t return.
This may be a heartless way to think about the little dressed up children visiting on Halloween, but it serves our instinctual craving for modern lore. These become symbolic understandings of ourselves and why we do what we do. If we do not practice this self-awareness of our little cyclic rituals, they become empty of significance. Albeit slightly preachy for some, Jonathan’s video is incredibly insightful and I’ll link it here for anyone who’s interested in viewing it in full.
On a lighter note, the celebration of the beauty of the festival – captured in bright orange, yellow, rusty brown, earthy blacks and red, all harvest colours – has never wavered. Somewhere in our subconscious, we know that these are the shades to celebrate.
And as we watch the days growing shorter – as we see the sun slipping quicker into the horizon day by day, we know that the year will pass us by. We know that, in the future, there will be many iterations of that same moment, year after year – with or without us in the frame of things – that we are perishable, impermanent in this great wheel that turns each year.
And perhaps then we will give thanks to be able to bask in just this one instant.