Samhain

Best holiday ever.

Oh, Halloween, you are so very much my favorite holiday. Ghouls and ghosts and goblins — all you need are presents, and you would be perfect.

To call it a “holiday” doesn’t seem to do it justice. “Holiday” is such a nice, unassertive word completely lacking the kind of gravitas that a day like Halloween requires.

“Holy day” would be better. That is, after all, where the word “holiday” comes from. Although I don’t think the Christianized Romans who made the term popular would appreciate it being linked with a pagan rite. And Halloween is about as pagan as you can get.

While Christmas has become to American holidays what baseball is to American sports, Halloween will still always be my favorite.

It’s the holiday popularly celebrated that has the oldest heritage, predating Christianity by several centuries. When you dim the lights, fire up the jack o’ lantern, and pull that mask over your face, you’re taking part in a ritual as old as the Isles of Britain, and far, far older than civilized America.

Here’s a little history — old enough to be heavily disputed and far enough back in the lineage of man that the truth might never be agreed upon. So, consider the following a story: Maybe fiction, maybe not, and maybe something else altogether.

The ancient Celts were among the first people to christen this time of year as a recognized day of celebration. It was called Samhain (pronounced sow’ein or sow’vein). To them, this time marked the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one.

Samhain, which loosely translates to “end of summer,” marked the last harvest of the year and the onset of winter. For the Celts, it was a time to bring the cattle down from the pastures, to gather and preserve the last ripe fruits and nuts, and to button down for the cold, dark months ahead.

Before they did that, though, they sent the old year out with a bang.

Samhain did not merely mark the beginning of winter, but also represented one of the most profound spiritual days of the Celtic year. On this day, it was said that the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead are the thinnest, and the souls of the recently departed can return on that evening to visit with their old friends and their old enemies.

These wandering spirits were said to return to their former homes, warm themselves by the fire, and find comfort in the joy of being near their kin. To the adults, they brought wisdom from beyond the grave. To the children, it was said that they brought gifts and goodies.

In Ireland, it was also said that the Sidh (mystical hills wherein fairies reside) would open up their doors for this occasion. The fairies would wander the countryside, slipping into the celebrations, and causing minor mischief and havoc.

It was impossible to keep the fairies underground on Samhain.

In truth, no one could be kept away from the end-of-the-year celebration, as the hearth fires were doused and one immense ceremonial fire was lit in the center of the Celtic village honoring the descending sun. The cattle that wouldn’t make it through the winter were culled and prepared, along with some of the last harvest. It was the great feast of the old year.

In the central fire, a giant wicker man was burned, signifying the temporary death of the land around them. In the spring, the building of another wicker man would begin, and subsequently be burned the next autumn.

All in all, Samhain was the last gasp of physical exertion and pleasure (eating, drinking, dancing, fucking) before the onset of winter, when much of a person’s time would be spent indoors and inwardly contemplating. At the same time, it was the most mysterious and spiritual time of year for the ancient Celts.

The holiday was, lamentably, revised considerably during the centuries between then and now. Eventually, the Romans came to the British Isles, bringing with them Christianity and an intolerance that led to the systematic slaughter and destruction of those “pagan” people and their rituals.

It didn’t quite work as well as they’d wanted. Well past the fall of the Roman Empire, Samhain was still celebrated throughout the Isles.

The early Christian church in England tried to Christianize the old Celtic festival by making November 1 into All Hallows or All Saints Day, thereby turning October 31 into All Hallows Eve — which over the years became shortened to Hallowe’en. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III established November 1 as the Roman Catholic feast day honoring the dead.

Again, the attempt to discourage the celebration of the old festival was so unsuccessful that the best the church could do was ignore it and hope it went away.

And while it didn’t disappear, it did evolve. Today’s holiday seems a thousand lifetimes away from the ancient feast of Samhain, the day when the dead and those creatures that never lived would walk the earth.

There are still echoes.

Fairy spirits can be seen in the costumes and masks parading through town streets, and the treats we give them to leave our home in peace.

The massive feast has split into a host of small parties, and roasting cattle has been replaced by candied apples. The bonfires still pop up, although the flaming pyre in the center of town has, except in some select communities, been doused.

Mostly, in America at least, the holiday has fallen to the watering-down of commercialism. So, why do I like it that much?

I like the idea that on one evening during these weeks when the days get shorter and twilight seems to stretch on for an eternity, things we don’t understand and don’t believe in can reach out and grab us by the spine. I like the idea that the long deceased can push through the veil between this world and whatever lies on the other side and impart to us some tiny bit of their knowledge one last time.

And I like the idea that, no matter how far into the future we travel, no matter how bogged down our flesh and souls may become in the trappings of the 21st century, there’s still a day of the year when the past can come back to haunt us.

Article © 2002 by Steve Spotswood