Recently I was part of a conversation where our small group wondered, “How was this Holy Day commemorated before it was all commercialized into a scary night?” Is it possible to observe this Holy Day in a similar fashion today?
We determined that we’d need to dig up whatever historical facts we could find that show how this day was commemorated before 1700 A.D., more or less. Though we couldn’t be 100 percent certain, we at least assumed that “commercialization” didn’t really exist in 1700, and all the European and some American commemorations before that year probably retained some semblance of what the day was all about originally.
So, first, let’s begin with the day.
It is believed that the ancient Celts observed something called a “Samhain festival” towards the end of October. Says the World Book Encyclopedia. The Celts believed that the dead could walk among the living at this time. During Samhain, the living could visit with the dead.
Elements of the customs can be traced to a Druid ceremony in pre-Christian times. The Celts had festivals for two major gods — a sun god and a god of the dead (called Samhain), whose festival was held on November 1, the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
This day, or period, was to mark the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter.
Samhain (pronounced “sow-in,” which means “summer’s end,” or the name of a god, or both) is seen by some Wiccans as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have died, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the dead are invited to attend the festivities.
Various sorts of activities done on Samhain have been described over the centuries. In Ireland, Samhain was a time to take stock of the herds and food supplies. Cattle were brought to the winter pastures after six months in the higher summer pastures. Then, the people chose which animals to slaughter before the winter. After the slaughter of the animals, there would be feasting. And obviously, if you aren’t an animal-raising farmer, how would you celebrate this aspect, except for the feasting?
The Catholic Church was aware of all the so-called “pagan” observances, and had their own day to commemorate the dead, May 13. This began in 609 or 610 A.D., when Pope Boniface the 4th dedicated the Pantheon— the Roman temple of all the gods—to Mary and all the martyrs. Later that date was changed by Pope Gregory III (731-741 A.D.), who dedicated a chapel in Rome to all the saints and ordered that they be honored on November 1. This was done, in part, to overshadow the pre-existing Samhain commemorations.
In the 11th century, November 2 was assigned as “All Souls’ Day” in commemoration of the dead. So this began the use of the term Hallow’s Eve, or Hallowe’en for October 31.
Hallowe’en customs are similar to the observance of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, commonly practiced in Mexico and which can be traced to early Aztec times. Apparently, this “day of the dead” was originally commemorated in Mexico in May, and was changed to November 2 sometime after Spanish contact to correspond with the Christian tradition.
FOOD and GIFTING
Trick or treating in modern times goes back to leaving food and wine for roaming dead spirits and ghosts.
Treats called “soul cakes” were given out in memory of the departed. The Middle Age practice of “souling” — going door to door begging for food in return for prayers — became popular and is even referenced by William Shakespeare in 1593. This is obviously the root of the modern “trick or treating” for mini Snickers bars, a practice no doubt loved by every dentist.
Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often used in the Samhain rituals. Apples were peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of the future spouse’s name. Nuts were roasted on the hearth and then interpreted – if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. COSTUMES
Celts would wear masks when they left their homes during the night hours during Samhain days, because they hoped they would avoid being recognized by the ghosts and be mistaken merely for fellow ghosts.
“Mumming” and “Guising” were a part of Samhain from at least the 16th century and was recorded in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales. It involved people going from house to house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting songs or verses in exchange for food.
It is suggested that it evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the aos sí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf. Impersonating these spirits or souls was also believed to protect oneself from them. One researcher suggests that the ancient festival included people in masks or costumes representing these spirits, and that the modern custom came from this.
I like the way that the Day of the Dead is commemorated. There are altars with pictures of the dearly departed, and plates of good food. Candles are lit, rather than a big bonfire which the local fire department would frown upon. Families gather, and talk in respectful tones about their departed relatives.
Yes, of course, even the Day of the Dead has turned into wild partying in some quarters, but if you seek a return to roots of the ancient commemoration of the dead, perhaps begin here.
This is at least a start, and it elevates our day of ghoulish and pointless fear-mongering into one that reconnects us with our roots.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of several books including “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and “Foraging California.”