The fifth of November
The Gunpowder treason and plot
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot” ~English folk rhyme
Hello my fellow readers, the Whisperer is back to tell you all about his favorite time of year with all of the activity in the air! The nights are longer and cooler, the leaves have changed into shades of red, orange and yellow and the smell of pumpkins is all around (from the pies being baked and eaten to the carved out pumpkins that really need to be put into the trash!).
Halloween is in fact the Whisperer’s favorite holiday! But there is more to this day and the holidays that take place around this time that many students let alone adults may not know about. This past weekend people also remembered their dearly departed loved ones during the Days of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos), a Mexican holiday with ancient native Mexican and Spanish Catholic roots that takes place from October 31st to November 2nd. Tonight “across the pond”, people all across England will be celebrating Bonfire Night, commemorating the night back in 1605 when the plot to blow up the Protestant-run Parliament by Guy Fawkes and his Catholic conspirators was foiled. Originally this holiday was predominantly an anti-Catholic one but has now become a secular holiday for the whole family to celebrate out of doors on the night of.
Tonight, our British compatriots will be eating toffee (caramel) apples, drink mulled wine and watch elaborate fireworks (pictured left in London) and bonfire displays. One of the largest events takes place in Lewes, England (pictured above center and right) with various communities dressing up in costume, parading down the street with lit torches and setting on fire an effigy of Guy Fawkes, just like children had been doing years and years before asking for money, “penny for the guy” for the bonfire and effigy making. Most people know about Guy Fawkes thanks to the comic book series and movie “V for Vendetta”, but do know that this holiday is quite popular in England and people love it just as much as we do for Halloween.
All of these holidays are unique in their own right but they do share some similarities: festive occasions occurring at the end of autumn and the harvest season, the dead are remembered and lights, especially with bonfires and jack o’lanterns, are used during the waning part of the year as we all prepare for the winter ahead. So gather about the hearth fire fellow students and readers and let’s go on a very brief and concise journey to learn about some of these holidays and their probable origins. The rest you can research in your good free time!
So now to Halloween. Many scholars, historians and folklorists have agreed that the main ancestor to Halloween was a Celtic and Gaelic festival celebrated in ancient Ireland known as Samhain (meaning roughly in Gaelic “the end of summer”). It was time for the tribal people known as the Celts to finish with the harvest season, bringing in crops and animals for the coming winter. Tribes came together to discuss business and politics as well as for feasting and remembering the dead as they prepared for the harshest season where death could be knocking at anyone’s door. (Pictured below is a contemporary Samhain gathering at the Hill of Ward in County Meath in Ireland where Samhain was allegedly started and now is home to the Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival!).
The Celts believed in a universal duality seen in nature and so split their “calendar” year into the “light” (Summer) and “dark” (Winter) halves of the year and Samhain, the beginning of winter, was also their New Year’s festival. As it was believed to be a “time outside time” between one year and the next, people thought that the spirits of the dead, gods and fairies could come into our world and interact with the living, emerging from the mounds of ancient tombs long before the time of the Celts, later called fairy or “Sidhe” mounds seen across Ireland today (pictured below right). People looked to their priestly caste called the Druids for guidance as it was a great time for divination and communion with the dead in order to discover the health and well-being of the entire community. Bonfires were lit across the hills of ancient Ireland, serving a dual purpose to both welcome the kindly spirits of ancestors as well as to frighten away unwanted evil spirits who could possess or do harm to the living. With all of these elements put together (e.g. ghosts, magic, fire, darkness and the night) we have the basic ingredients for Halloween.
Later when Europe and the British Isles, the latter the lands where Samhain was celebrated in Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom, were being converted to Christianity in the early Medieval period, the Catholic Church decided not to abolish old holidays altogether but to allow people to continue celebrating but now as worshippers of God. During the Middle Ages, two popes tried to appropriate “Samhain” and other pagan festivals by giving people days to honor their dead as Christians. All Saints’ Day, a holy day to honor early Christian martyrs without a feast day of their own, was created to counteract pagan worship. All Saints Day first tried to “de-paganize” an ancient Roman festival of the dead called Lemuria around May 13 but later moved the date to November 1st to “de-paganize” the Gaelic festival of Samhain. Centuries later All Souls’ Day, to commemorate all of the dead, was then placed on November 2nd, after All Saints Day. In old English, the word for “saint” was “hallow” and so All Saints Day was known as All Hallows Day. The day before was called “All Hallows’ Evening” or “All Hallows’ Eve”. Over time, especially with Scottish influence, this became shortened to “Hallowe’en” and soon became the day we all know today…Halloween. All three days were put together, akin to the three days Samhain was supposed to be celebrated over, and it became known as “All Hallowstide” or “Hallowmas”. So we have the medieval Christians to thank for giving this holiday its modern name!
Stay tuned to hear the rest of this haunted holiday season, so don’t fly off your broomstick yet!