Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve as the church would have it, is today. This evening there will be visits from assorted ghosts and goblins as well as the occasional ninja fighter and superhero.
All Hallow’s Eve was the Christian church’s answer to Samhain, a pagan festival of equal parts ancestor veneration and rituals designed to protect one from monsters and the Fae. Our tradition of dressing up in costumes and giving out candy to visitors arises from Samhain. The church moved the date around quite a bit, and tried the handy substitution of saints for faeries and pukahs, but didn’t manage to get rid of the festival in any meaningful way.
Samhain is a fire festival. At the end of the year, when the harvest was being brought in, hearth fires were allowed to die out, mostly of necessity. There simply wasn’t time to both get in the harvest AND keep the fires going.
Of course, once the bounty was gathered from the fields, a celebration was
in order, including a big fire and conversations with dead ancestors to catch them up on the year’s events. Apparently the veil between worlds is very thin on Samhain, allowing for dead relatives to visit. Hence, a communal feast was held. There was a lot of mead and ale involved, which may offer a partial explanation for the visitations. At the end of the night, each family took a brand from the communal bonfire and relit the fire in their home hearth.
Of course, ancestral spirits weren’t the only ones to take advantage of the thinning of the veil. Costumes were worn to trick monsters, who might want to kidnap the unwary, into thinking that one was just another monster, and would therefore not be much of a prize if brought back to the underworld.
Whatever else Samhain (pronounced sow-win) might have been, it was a time of gratitude. People were grateful for the gifts of food, warmth, and safety that the successful end of a harvest represented. It was a reminder that though everything has an ending, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Endings make way for new beginnings.
And if you can do that in costume, and get candy for it, all the better.