Halloween

You are currently browsing articles tagged Halloween.

Happy Samhain, or Halloween, if you prefer. Here are a few Samhain-related or posts (or just spooky stories) from the archives.

banshee title card

 

All About Samhain

‘Tis the time of year to declare Halloween indisputably Irish and credit everything from jack-o-lanterns to trick-or-treating to ancient Celtic practices. But the evidence is sketchy, although interesting…

Read the rest of this entry »

Are the roots of Halloween traditions Irish?

If you look into the traditions beyond the supernatural window dressing of Halloween, many of them focus on reinforcing the ties between community members. Ties which would have been vitally important before industrial agriculture with the winter starting and with it the possibilities of food shortages, illness, the approach of storms, etc. — not that they’re any less important now.

Photo credit: Strathclyde Fire & Rescue

Bonfires

The bonfire was the center of the Samhain celebrations in the Celtic lands during the early Christian era. Some traditions had every house in a village extinguish the fires in their own hearths (possibly to make them less inviting to roaming spirits) and relight them with burning embers from the communal bonfire (which they may have brought home in hollowed-out turnips). The message was clear: we’re all in this together.

Another tradition has it that two bonfires should be set up a short distance apart and the villagers’ cattle herded between them for good luck. I’ve also read that this tradition was also practiced during the midsummer festival/St. John’s Night, so perhaps it was something that was customary at both the midpoint and start of the Celtic year, or just a practice that people began repeating as the original reasons behind it were lost?

When I was a child, people sometimes added a guy to the Halloween bonfire, but that was inspired by Guy Fawkes Night/Bonfire Night (Remember, remember the 5th of November…) and had nothing to do with Halloween or Samhain. Kids just like to burn stuff.

Jack-o-Lanterns

Turnips were originally carved and a candle or glowing ember placed inside. Pumpkins only came along after the New World was settled.

There appear to be several stories that explain the “jack-o-lantern.” One is that it was used to carry that burning ember from the bonfire back to a family’s cottage. The other is that the boys who went guising (“disguising”) — the medieval English tradition of going from house to house begging for soul-cakes (now known as hot cross buns) in return for prayers for the souls of the dead — would carry one, either to light their way or as something that was symbolic of the dead.

Guising (also known in Ireland as “souling”) — which obviously evolved into trick or treating — was common from the middle ages on, and I believe it still goes on in parts of Scotland. Why they needed to be disguised is less clear: perhaps as a protection in case the vengeful dead were looking for you, or perhaps to allow the dead to infiltrate their ranks and enjoy a night partying as if they were alive once again? Again, the tradition would seem to be something that reinforced social connections and the shared history of the community.

It’s notable that in Ireland and Scotland, treats were given in return for performance (a song or a story) which is in keeping with traditions like the curaid (the circuit) and general respect for storytelling and musicianship.

What are the true Celtic roots of Halloween?

Halloween, or Oíche Samhna in Irish, perplexes me. Read any wikipedia or general-interest article about the holiday and you find tradition heaped on tradition: Christian rite on pagan festival, local Scottish habit projected onto other nations, early-Christian folklore labeled as Druidic belief, and modern-day pagan reinvention regarded as ancient rite. As somebody whose chief interest is in what old Celtic beliefs really were, it’s hard to cut through the layers of tradition that have grown up around Halloween and come to be repeated endlessly as “fact.”

The popular imagination (and those ubiquitous articles) generally assumes Halloween to have ancient roots from pre-Christian times, yet when you poke into the origins of the major features of the festival, they appear to have largely begun during the medieval period.

The site of the Banqueting Hall on the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath — One of the tales in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology tells how Tara was burned every Samhain by Áillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, before he was kiled by Fionn, who then became leader of the Fianna.

Mythological Origins

In ancient Irish mythology, Samhain (pronounced Sow-an) is a feis at the beginning of winter (or, translated literally, at the end of summer — indicating that then, as now, we Irish had a tendency to see the glass as half-full).

There are tales of Irish kings and warriors having grand feasts and (as usually happens when a lot of men get together for a serious drinking session) starting big fights or being goaded into doing stupid things. No jack-o-lanterns, no bonfires* beyond that required to keep warm, and no mention of the dead roaming the land.

However, while Irish society was very tradition-oriented, we should remember that the chiefs and great warriors were a class apart in this society. There’s no reason why they should not have had their own private drinking session distinct from the general Samhain celebrations.

*Although, there is tale in the Fenian cycle which tells how Áillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the gods of the Irish Celts (or possibly pre-Celtic Irish, depending on how you interpret origin myths written down by hostile Christian monks) caused havoc by burning down the King’s dwelling on the Hill of Tara every Samhain until Fionn defeated him. Was this an early “trick” or the start of the tradition of supernatural beings running amuck on Samhain?

Odd carving found in the 8th Century Churchyard on Inis Mór, Aran Islands. Is this a trickster figure, a breaded man, or an older motif?

Folkloric Origins

It seems to be accepted that Samhain was at heart an agricultural festival marking the successful harvesting of food, and probably involving or preceding the slaughter of cattle for the winter. Warriors likely didn’t spend much time in agricultural labor, so perhaps for the majority of people Samhain was a ritual celebration of harvest and less a manly drinking session (of this, more in the next post)…

Samhain is definitely a time of change; one has only to look at the trees to see that. Celebrated as the Celtic New Year (at least nowadays by new age pagans), Samhain is indisputably a “liminal” period when one year ends and the next begins, and a time when treachery and the intervention of supernatural forces are to be expected and feared.

Several Celtic warriors and kings seem to have met their downfall on Samhain or had the circumstances leading to that downfall set in motion, so it appears a little ironic that it was viewed as a day of peace in the heroic age. Of course, this does establish the tradition of gods and supernatural beings walking the land on Samhain; but it should be said that supernatural forces were always at work in the prehistoric age (i.e. before history was regularly — if not reliably — recorded) — so, perhaps Samhain wasn’t particularly unique in that regard?

Mouth of a passage grave at Carrowkiel, Co. Sligo. Tradition held that tombs opened on All Hallow’s Eve and the dead might visit the living.

To paraphrase something I read recently, these times of change from one thing to another (old year to new, life to death, singletonhood to married) are times of danger: you’ve opened the door to change and anything might come in. So although there may not be a wealth of canonical legend about the dead walking the land, there is plenty of folk tradition.

The sidhe were said to walk the land and people would leave food and milk for them. Others feared the spirits of the dead would rise up and visit their kin — even going so far as to leave windows open and offerings of food out for them. I’ve always regarded this as symbolic, but the discovery of 8th century zombies in County Roscommon makes me wonder. (Curiously, the 8th century was when the Pope moved to replace Samhain with the churchified feast of All Saints Day (the day after All Hallows Eve), so perhaps there was some genuine fear of the undead among the people and the Church’s action took advantage of this?)

I haven’t drawn any conclusions yet, but for now I’ll have to file it away under “must read more…”

 

Notes

A post about the history of jack-o-lanterns and bonfires…

We just changed the display on our seasons table and put the Halloween decorations up. The table  currently combines the signs of harvest and the turning leaves (cornucopia, gourds, Indian corn, acorns, chestnuts/buckeyes) with the fun of Halloween (witches, ghosts, trick or treating stuffed animals). But the highlight -– or at least the items our kids play with the most -– tends to be the box of seasonal books that we put under the table.

A seasons table is a corner/side table/flat surface in your house where you can display the signs, symbols and touchstones of each season for your children to examine, play with and thus learn the importance of each season. For us — in keeping with our ongoing attempts to keep clutter at bay — it’s  also a way to limit the amount of stuff we accumulate. (If we want to add something to the mix, then something else has to go.)

The books that make the cut for the seasons box are the best-loved books for each season, titles that even our too-cool-for-school eldest daughter will curl up for hours reading – even though she’s way too old for the Berenstain Bears or Clifford . If these titles were taking up space on the shelves all year, I’d be sick of the sight of them and coveting the space for something else. When they only come up from the basement for a month or so, it’s a big occasion for our kids, and the shared reading of them adds to the sense of ritual and tradition of each season.

It’s also something of a test kitchen in terms of the quality of the books, as only the favorite books get kept year upon year. And here I’m using quality to mean that elusive quality that keeps kids rereading and enjoying the book over time, not the more-easily identified and debated qualities that determine whether a book wins awards or not. So here (in no particular order) are a few of the Halloween/fall/autumn-themed books that my children have chosen to read or have read to them year after year after year.

Pumpkin Soup / A Pipkin of Pepper / Delicious by Helen Cooper

Fabulous artwork and a simple story about teamwork make all the “Pumpkin Soup” books by Helen Cooper essential picture books for this time of year. The clever and detailed art has kept our children interested as they’ve grown up, finding new things each year when they pour over the pictures.

Wild Child by Lynn Plourde

The fall title in Lynn Plourde’s quartet of season books. This story about the changing of the seasons, the end of summer’s heat, the falling of the leaves and the growing chill of autumn is a perennial favorite. It’s somewhat amazing that the publisher has allowed most of the books in this series to go quietly out of print. Wild Child appears to be the only one still available in paperback. Every so often we gift a set of these books to somebody or other, and have to get them directly from Apple Valley Books, who carry the remainder of the author’s copies. Hopefully, the publisher can return them to print or publish a single collected volume at some point.

Angelina’s Halloween by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig

Yes, yes, I know it’s not cool to express a liking for anything that has become a cartoon series – a sin in hip bookselling circles comparable to expressing an enjoyment of anything published by  Disney (which I’ll commit below) — but my girls loved the Angelina Ballerina series, and Angelina’s Halloween is one of the best. The pictures are expressive, detailed and quite lovely, and the story about a big sister who gets tired of her little sister tagging along is something that has had great resonance in our household over the years.

Hidden Pumpkins by Anne Margaret Lewis and Jim DeWildt

My girls never get tired of the “seek and find” type of books. I couldn’t tell you what the overt storyline of this book is, except that everything rhymes. The story isn’t important in any case; the fun of this book is in pouring over the detailed pictures to find all the hidden – and expressive — pumpkins.

The Scariest Monster in the Whole Wide World by Pamela Mayer and Lydia Monks

One of the first books that went into our Halloween box, and one of the best-loved. The story is a timely reminder that kids have tons of fun dressing up for Halloween and the quality of their costume isn’t important. Who cares if you think they look like a freak? If they think they look scary/spooky/awesome, then they feel great. [Note: Appears to be out of print.]

Turtle and Snake’s Spooky Halloween by Kate Spohn

A very simple early reader, the fun of this book is in the memories of our girls reading it when they were younger and hadn’t yet mastered their letters. Our first child couldn’t say the letter ‘S’ for the longest time, so this will forever be known as “Turtle and Nake’s Pooky Halloween” in our house.

The Book of Boo by Marge Kennedy

Here’s the dreaded Disney title… Our kids were big Winnie the Pooh fans at an early age, and yes we were known to pop a video on in order to get twenty minutes peace. Winnie the Pooh’s Book of Boo came along at just the right time. The video is long gone, but the girls still seem to retain a quiet (and surreptitious) enjoyment of the book.

Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson & Axel Schleffler

Why isn’t Julia Donaldson as huge in the US as she is in the UK, where 3-4 of her books always seem to be in Amazon’s top 100? Room on the Broom is a charming picture book about a witch and her menagerie (a cat, a dog and a frog) and their misadventure with a dragon who likes to eat witches. The simple, colorful pictures (by Axel Scheffler) are very expressive and not scary at all, the story is told in rhymes that appeal to kids of all ages. There’s enough humorous detail in the picture to reward rereading and encourage kids to pour over the artwork on their own.

The Three Little Witches by Georgie Adams

This is another book that takes a pretty elementary story (three school-age witches who live together and are planning a Halloween party), adds in lots of simple but detail-laden artwork and uses simple words with lots of repetition. The story is too long to be read in a single sitting, so it makes a good book to read over a couple of nights at Halloween, and the language makes this a perfect introductory “chapter” book for kids graduating from early readers. Even my older daughter likes to re-examine the pictures and listen as I read this to her younger sister. As a child’s reading ability grows, they can begin to read this to themselves and will not be intimidated as they can be by more text-heavy early chapter books, nor will they be able to memorize this as with many favorite picture books.

All Hallows Eve by Lisa Sferlazza Johnson and Tucker Johnson

This is the story about Eve, the Halloween fairy, who takes your extra candy and leaves toys instead. It’s a clever and well-spun story that will (happily) have your kids wanting to leave most of their candy for the Halloween fairy.

A possible addition to the Halloween box his year may be On a Windy Night by Nancy Raines Day and George Bates. It’s a slightly scary tale of a boy making his way back through the woods after trick or treating. He’s alone – our youngest immediately made me promise she’d never have to trick or treat alone – and his imagination runs away with him as he imagines every rustling leaf to be a monster and every bare tree to be a skeleton. The art work is clever, full of suggestive shadows and atmospheric embellishments. The clouds take on monstrous shapes, the bare tree branches seem to reach out toward the boy and the moonlight makes a cornfield appear to come of life. Whether the book was too suggestive and scary for my youngest remains to be seen, but she did appear to greatly enjoy the story and art on first read.

It’s quite cute to see our oldest, who has recently been devouring The Penderwicks and Kate Di Camillo’s oeuvre on her own, reading through a stack of old favorite picture books, or reading them to her sister. It remind us how far we’ve come as a family, how much our girls have grown, and keeps us hunting for the next fun reading experience.