Thursday, October 28, 2010
The origins of Halloween and the Day of the Dead.
The word "Halloween," is a corruption of the name "All Hallow’s Eve."
Say "Hallows Eve" three times fast and quicker than a black cat can cross your path you've said "Halloween".
"Hallow’s" means: holy, as in "Hallowed be thy name."
On the Catholic calendar November 1st is "All Hallow’s Day" (or "All Saints Day") a day to honor the souls of departed saints. Therefore the evening before, Oct. 31st was called All Hallow’s Eve. It’s a short linguistic hop from “Hallow’s Eve” to “Halloween.” As I’ve pointed out in previous blog entries many Christian Holy days were instituted to override existing Pagan Holy days, and that is the case here.
In Ireland in the 5th century, summer officially ended on October 31st. The holiday was called Samhain (sow-en), the Celtic New Year. In Irish folklore it was believed that the portal between this world and the next was left open for that one night. The disembodied spirits of all those who had died the preceding year would come back in search of living bodies to possess. So on the night of October 31st, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes and dress up in ghoulish costumes and go wilding around the neighborhood, being as destructive as possible in order to frighten away spirits.
An interesting aside…the reason people wore black at funerals was for very much the same reason. It was believed that when night fell the departed soul would roam around looking for a body to possess. If you wore black they couldn't see you in the dark. A variation of this is the concept of a wake. It was believed that evil souls would possess the body of a dead relative; so one family member or friend would sit by the coffin to ward off evil spirits. The trusted family member had to stay awake throughout the night and thus today we have "Wakes."
Some eagerly awaited the night of the dead in the hopes they could party on down with former family members. In parts of Ireland, giant burial mounds called “sidhe” were opened and lined with torches to help the dead find their way home. Favorite foods and drink were placed on the family table for the visiting deadhead. (Remember that when we talk about the Mexican Day of the Day below.)
Over time, Celtic Halloween folklore was assimilated into the story of man. It is believed that Irish monks roaming through Europe brought the festival of Samhain along with them. The Christian Church would eventually institute All Hallows Day to replace this decidedly Pagan celebration. The Irish custom of costumes and rowdy behavior (tricks and pranks) clung to the Christian Holy Day like foam on a pint of Guinness.
Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine brought the custom of Halloween to America in the 1840's. At that time, favorite Halloween pranks included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates. This eventually became soaping windows, throwing eggs at houses, progressing on to shaving cream, silly string and the occasional arson if you lived in Detroit-Metro area.
The custom of trick-or-treating wasn't Irish.
It originated with a ninth-century European Christian custom called “Souling”. On November 2nd, All Souls Day, folks would walk around town begging for "soul cakes," (square pieces of bread with currants.) The more soul cakes the beggars collected in their goody bags, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives in purgatory. (For non-Christians, Purgatory was kind of like a Department of Motor Vehicles in the hereafter. You had to sit around waiting while folks on earth said prayers for you. After a sufficient number of prayers were accumulated, you got to pass "Go" and collect $200.)
The Jack-o'-lantern, however, does come from the Irish. The Irish love their stories and in this one a notorious drunkard and trickster named Jack, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. He then carved an image of a cross in the tree's trunk, trapping the devil out on a limb. Jack cut a deal with Beelzebub, if he would never tempt him again, he'd let him down. When Jack died, God wouldn't let him into Heaven because of his evil ways and the Devil told him Hell had no vacancies (It was full of Advertising People). Instead, the Dark Prince gave Jack a single ember to light his way through the night. Jack put it inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it lit and roamed the land for eternity. The Irish carried illuminated turnips with designs of frightful faces carved on them to scare off the ghoulies. The Irish used turnips as their "Jack's lanterns". But when the immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins were far more plentiful and a hell of a lot easier to carve. And thus the Jack O' lantern pumpkin was born.
We Americans have not only added pumpkins to the collective myth but also candy corn as well as flashlights with Jack O' Lantern heads, and the horror movie "Halloween I, 2 and 3"
So to summarize, once again we've taken an old pagan myth and turned it into what in America has become a $5 billion a year industry.
This All Hallow's Eve as you scurry home in fear clutching your precious soul close to your shivering body, remember the old Scottish prayer:
From Ghosties and Ghoulies
And long leggety beasties,
And things that go bump in the night
Dear Lord preserve us
Happy Samhain everyone!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Notice in your calendar that Nov. 2nd is listed as
“The Day of the Dead”
No, this is not Jerry Garcia’s Birthday.
Rather, La Dia de Los Meurtos is the Mexican Day of the Dead an ancient festival that predates the Spanish invasion. The original Aztec celebration, dedicated to children and the dead, can be traced to the festivities held during the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontli, The head deadhead at these festivities was the goddess Mictecacihuatl ("Lady of the Dead") In the Aztec calendar, this ritual fell near the end of July. The Spanish forced the Indians to covert to Christianity and moved the date of their celebration to coincide with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve (in Spanish: "Día de Todos Santos,") The result is that Mexicans now celebrate the day of the dead during the first two days of November, rather than at the beginning of summer. But the holiday remains a happy, joyous, festive celebration of the cycles of life and remembrance of ancestors---- as opposed to the Freddie Kruger blood, gore and ooze celebrations north of the border.
Basically families visit the graves of family members, clean up the place. decorate it with flowers, then spread out a blanket and party on down with the deceased member’s favorite food and drink. Families remember the departed by telling stories about them. They build Family altars in the home and decorate them with bright flowers.
Gifts of sugar skeletons are passed around. A Mexican child’s favorite this time of year is the "Bread of the Dead" (pan de muerto). A plastic skeleton is hidden in a loaf of bread, whoever bites into it is blessed with good luck.
The original Aztec holiday was all about celebrating life, not fearing death. So to me this Pagan holiday was much more civilized than its Christian replacement.
Of course, the irony is that Halloween was invented to smother a Celtic pagan holy day ---Samhain and then in an attempt to smother an Aztec pagan Holy day it was moved to coincide with Halloween.
The result being Mexicans celebrating on an Irish Holy Day.
So crack out the Guinness and the Coronas and
Vaya con dios –even if that dios is Mictecacihuatl