Dates for your diary
By Jo Finzi
Halloween is believed to have begun as a pre-Christian Celtic festival to honour the dead. November 1st on the modern calendar marked the advent of winter, a date which marked both an ending and a beginning in a perpetual cycle of life.
The Christians tried to eliminate “pagan” holidays (such as Samhain) but succeeded in bringing about transformations. In 601, Pope Gregory the First issued an edict to his missionaries regarding the beliefs and customs of those he hoped to convert. In a stroke of diplomatic genius, he instructed his missionaries todo sort of a bait and switch.
For example, if a certain group worshipped a tree, then rather than cut that tree down, the Pope advised that it be consecrated to Christ and its worship be allowed to continue.
Celtic belief in the supernatural persisted and the Church tried to define those who followed the old ways as being dangerous and malicious until such people were forced to go into hiding and eventually branded as witches.
The Christian feast of All Saints was assigned to November 1st. The day honoured every known Christian Saint, particularly those who did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them. This feast day was intended to act as a substitute for Samhain, to draw the devotion of the Celtic nation and, finally, forever replace the old Pagan festival.
However, that was not what occurred, even though the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status over time and became the fairies and leprechauns of more recent tradition. The ancient beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely, in fact there are Samhain-like celebrations around the world.
In Austria, some people leave bread, water and a lighted lamp on the table on Halloween night. It was once believed the food would welcome the dead souls back to earth, while in Belgium candles are lit in memory of dead relatives.
Jack O’Lanterns are carved from pumpkins and the festivities include parties, trick-or-treating and the decorating of homes with pumpkins and corn stalks. Halloween is running a close second to Christmas as a time for decorating houses.
In China, the festival is known as Teng Chieh. Food and water are placed in front of photographs of family members who have departed while lanterns are are used to light the paths of the spirits as they travel the earth. Buddhists often make boats from paper, which are then burned in the evening hours, as a remembrance of the dead and in order to free their spirits to ascend to heaven.
Chairs are placed by the fireside on Halloween night. There is one chair for each living family member and one for each family member’s spirit.
At one time, English children made “punkies” out of large beetroots, upon which they carved a design of their choice. Then, they would carry their “punkies” through the streets while singing the “Punkie Night Song” as they knocked on doors and asked for money. In some rural areas, turnip lanterns were placed on gateposts to protect homes from the spirits who roamed on Halloween night.
Another custom was to toss objects such as stones, vegetables and nuts into a bonfire to frighten away the spirits. If a pebble thrown into the flames at night was no longer visible in the morning, then it was believed that the person who tossed the pebble would not survive another year. If nuts tossed into the blaze by young lovers then exploded, it signified a quarrelsome marriage.
For the most part however, the English ceased celebrating Halloween with the Protestant Reformation. Since followers of the new religion did not believe in saints, they saw no reason to celebrate the Eve of All Saints’ Day. However, in recent years, the American “trick or treating” custom, together with the donning of costumes for going door-to-door, has become a relatively popular pastime.
Halloween is not celebrated by the French in order to honor the dead and departed ancestors. It is regarded as an “American” holiday in France and was virtually unknown in the country until around 1996.
In Germany, the people put away their knives on Halloween night because they do not want to risk harm befalling the returning spirits.
The Halloween celebration in Hong Kong is known as “Yue Lan” (Festival of the Hungry Ghosts) and is a time when it is believed that spirits roam the world for twenty-four hours.
In rural areas, bonfires are lit as they were in the days of the Celts and children dress up in costumes to spend the evening “trick-or-treating” in their neighborhoods. Party games include “snap-apple,” in which people try to take a bite of an apple is hung on a string. A traditional Halloween cake called “barnbrack,” is a seasonal treat.
The Japanese celebrate the “Obon Festival” (also known as “Matsuri” or “Urabon") which is dedicated to the spirits of ancestors. Special foods are prepared and bright red lanterns are hung everywhere. Candles are lit and placed into lanterns which are then set afloat on rivers and seas in order to show the ancestors where their families might be found. The “Obon Festival” takes place during July or August.
In Korea, the festival similar to Halloween is known as “Chusok.” Families thank their ancestors for the fruits of their labor. The family pays respect to ancestors by visiting their tombs and making offerings of rice and fruits. The “Chusok” festival takes place in August.
Mexico, Latin America And Spain
Among Spanish-speaking nations, Halloween is known as “El Dia de los Muertos.” It is a joyous and happy holiday, a time to remember friends and family who have died.
Officially commemorated on November 2nd (All Souls’ Day), the three-day celebration actually begins on the evening of October 31. Many families build an altar in their home and decorate it with candy, flowers, photographs, fresh water and the deceased’s favourite food and drinks. Sometimes a live person is placed inside a coffin which is then paraded through the streets while vendors toss fruit, flowers and candies into the casket.
On November 2nd, relatives gather at the gravesite to picnic and reminisce. Some of these gatherings may even include tequila and a mariachi band although American Halloween customs are gradually taking over this celebration. In Mexico during the autumn, countless numbers of Monarch butterflies return to the shelter of Mexico’s oyamel fir trees. It was the belief of the Aztecs that these butterflies bore the spirits of dead ancestors.
In Sweden, Halloween is known as “Alla Helgons Dag” and is celebrated from October 31st until November 6th. As with many other holidays, “Alla Helgons Dag” has an eve which is either celebrated or becomes a shortened working day. The Friday prior to All Saint’s Day is a short day for universities while school-age children are given a day of vacation.