All Hallows Eve

Every year in America, starting in about July, the patriotic merchandise goes onto the clearance shelves, and the Halloween merchandise comes out to take its place. This merchandise is known by it’s traditional orange and black, and also by the stylized version of “scary” it presents to the public. Plastic ghouls, unconvincingly bloody knives, and pumpkins wearing gaping faces can all be discovered at your local retailer of choice.

But why should a holiday apparently dedicated to dressing up and obtaining candy have such bizarrely macabre overtones?

Vigil_of_All_Hallows,_St._George's_Episcopal_Church_(2010)All Hallows Eve (better known to most as Halloween) is the day before All Hallows Day (or All Saints Day) and is the first night in a three day period known as Allhallowtide, a period for remembering and honoring the dead. Traditionally all good church-goers go to service, light candles in memory of loved ones, and lay flowers on their grave. Sounds harmless enough, right?

But the religious observance first came into existence in Celtic Europe where local catholic priests were desperately trying to weed out ancient pagan practices. They succeeded in doing this in many cases by allowing people to continue on with their rituals, but changing them to fit better with Christian standards, and by calling them something else. Both parties were usually pretty happy with this arrangement, which is why the Christian calender still looks so bizarrely pagan to this day.

While Halloween may owe its name to the influence of the Catholic church, the practice of honoring the dead at harvest time is much more ancient. And in the old days they didn’t honor the dead–they feared them. For Halloween coincides closely with Samhain–the day when the walls between the world grew thin and insubstantial and ghosts and spirits were free to cross over from their realm into ours.

What’s worse than having a long-dead uncle come over to your house and plop himself down in his usual spot on the couch and take over the TV remote? That would probably be having your dead abusive step-father show up on your doorstep and tell everyone about how you bumped him off. Having the dead, loved or not, attempt to come home, is not a prospect anyone wants to face with a smile and open arms. So on the night of All Hallow’s Eve, when the dead were known to wander about in the streets, all intelligent, god-fearing folk stayed indoors and left gifts of food on the doorstep to appease their deceased relatives.

Temple_Hill_Graveyard_(Cork)_at_night_04

But time passes, and fear fades, and the Celtic peoples started to notice that despite the fact that they all knew the dead walked abroad none of them had actually seen a dead relative in their common room. But the tradition continued, and became a sort of festivity. Children with a penchant for mischief making would masquerade as the souls of the dead and go up to houses, demanding appeasement and threatening haunting. This may have worked the first few years, but eventually folks figured out that Uncle George’s ghost was actually Tom from down the street, and Tom’s little brother noticed all the good food he came home with and wanted in on the fun.

So this year as you don costumes spectacular or spooky, as you put ghosts in your windows and skeletons on your lawn, take a moment to ponder the true meaning of Halloween–the ancient, primal fear of family reunions.


 

Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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