Halloween's origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts… who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new-year, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was pierced and visitation from the “other side” was possible.
"During this interval the normal order of the universe is suspended, the barriers between the natural and the supernatural are temporarily removed, this side lies open and all divine beings and the spirits of the dead move freely among men and interfere sometimes maliciously, in their affairs"- (Celtic Mythology, p. 127)
Modern Celebrations around the world
The Halloween celebration in Hong Kong is known as "Yue Lan" (Festival of the Hungry Ghosts) and is a time when it is believed that spirits roam the world for twenty-four hours. Some people burn pictures of fruit or money at this time, believing these images would reach the spirit world and bring comfort to the ghosts.
In China, the Halloween festival is known as Teng Chieh. Food and water are placed in front of photographs of family members who have departed while bonfires and lanterns are lit in order to light the paths of the spirits as they travel the earth on Halloween night. Worshippers in Buddhist temples fashion "boats of the law" from paper, some of which are very large, which are then burned in the evening hours. The purpose of this custom is twofold: as a remembrance of the dead and in order to free the spirits of the "pretas" in order that they might ascend to heaven. "Pretas" are the spirits of those who died as a result of an accident or drowning and whose bodies were consequently never buried. The presence of "pretas" among the living is thought by the Chinese to be dangerous. Under the guidance of Buddhist temples, societies are formed to carry out ceremonies for the "pretas," which includes the lighting of lanterns. Monks are invited to recite sacred verses and offerings of fruit are presented.
Among Spanish-speaking nations, particularly Mexico, Latin America, and Spain, Halloween is known as "El Dia de los Muertos." the days of the dead, a three-day celebration that begins on the evening of October 31 and culminates on November 2. This is an ancient festivity that has been transformed throughout the years. It was originally intended in prehistoric Mexico to celebrate children and the dead. Mexican families remember their dead and the continuity of life. It is a joyous and happy holiday...a time to remember friends and family who have died.
Officially commemorated on November 2 (All Souls' Day), the three-day celebration actually begins on the evening of October 31. Designed to honor the dead who are believed to return to their homes on Halloween, many families construct an altar in their home and decorate it with candy, flowers, photographs, fresh water and samples of the deceased's favorite foods and drinks. Frequently, a basin and towel are left out in order that the spirit can wash prior to indulging in the feast. Candles and incense are burned to help the departed find his or her way home. On November 2, relatives gather at the gravesite to picnic and reminisce.
Relatives also tidy the gravesites of deceased family members, including snipping weeds, making repairs and painting. The grave is then adorned with flowers, wreaths or paper streamers. They bring picnics and sit around the grave sites sharing stories of the departed and feasting on foods such as spicy meat dishes, batter bread and lots of sweets; some shaped like skulls. The abundance of food, drink and good company creates a festive atmosphere along with recognizing the cycle of life by the interaction of the living with the dead. Some of these gatherings may even include tequila and a mariachi band although American Halloween customs are gradually taking over this celebration.
In Mexico during the Autumn, countless numbers of Monarch butterflies return to the shelter of Mexico's oyamel fir trees. It was the belief of the Aztecs that these butterflies bore the spirits of dead ancestors.
In the villages, parades are held. People dress as skeletons and dance in the streets. Often, a live person is placed inside a coffin which is then paraded through the streets while vendors toss fruit, flowers and candies into the casket. Home feast are held and loaves of bread, "Bread of the Dead" are given. Inside the loaves are sugar skeletons or other items of death motif. This gift is more prized if the skull or skeleton is embossed with ones own name. The families also attend candle lit ceremonies in church and offer prayers. The whole celebration is about life from beginning to end.
In Ireland, which is considered to be where Halloween originated, the day is still celebrated much like it is in the United States. In rural areas, bonfires are lit as they were centuries ago, and all over the country, children get dressed up in costumes and spend the evening "trick-or-treating" in their neighborhoods. After trick-or-treating, most people attend parties with neighbors and friends. At the parties, many games are played, including "snap-apple," a game in which an apple on a string is tied to a doorframe or tree and players attempt to bite the hanging apple. In addition to bobbing for apples, parents often arrange treasure hunts, with candy or pastries as the "treasure." Children are also known to play tricks on their neighbors, such as "knock-a-dolly," a prank in which children knock on the doors of their neighbors, but run away before the door is opened.
English children made "punkies" out of large beets (which they call beetroots), upon which they carved a design of their choice. Then, they would carry their "punkies" through the streets while singing the "Punkie Night Song" as they knocked on doors and asked for money. Halloween became Guy Fawkes Night and moved a few days later, but recently it has been celebrated on October 31, in addition to Guy Fawkes Night. In some rural areas, turnip lanterns were placed on gateposts to protect homes from the spirits who roamed on Halloween night.
So as you, dear revelers in the macabre, prepare yourselves for an evening of merriment… be forewarned. Who knows what you will encounter on this most supernatural, this most pagan of nights? Who knows what you invite when you celebrate the shadow?
May your treats be many and may your tricks not be more than you bargained for…