Happy Celtic New Year!!!
I used to think Halloween was an American holiday. And who could blame me. If movies and television were to be believed in my youth, then it was a festivity taken very seriously in North America. And how convenient then, that the night that “Ell-eee-it” and E.T. made that extra-terrestrial phone call was on Halloween (Ironically they threw a sheet over him on the very night they didn’t need to). Halloween was also the night that the Karate Kid was set upon by a bunch of black belt skeletons. Heck even Charlie Brown was big on Halloween. The fact that Halloween was popping up in all sorts of programming outside of the horror genre said to me that in the US, Halloween was big money. And it is. With Hollywood and other commercial avenues, Halloween was grown into this great big commercial opportunity. And whether or not something has been lost along the way, well the holiday hasn’t lost its sense of fun.
As a great big heathen it probably sounds a tad hollow for me to inform you that Halloweens roots go much further back. First into Christianity and then further back again. Those roots of course began on the other side of the Atlantic. Halloween is a contraction of ‘All Hallows Evening’. All Hallows (November the 1st) is now recognised as an important Christian festival. This is a time of remembrance for the dead, hallows(saints) and all the faithful departed. So surely it was the Christians that started all this tricking and treating and dressing up like ghosts? Not So.
Let me introduce you to a little event called Samhain. Samhain was the most important date on the pre-christian Celtic calendar. And this date? – November the 1st. Now all important Celtic festivals of the time started at sunset on the day before the date in question. So Samhain started at sunset on October the 31st. The festival itself was a three pronged affair and often lasted for three days if Celtic mythology holds any grains of truth. First, it symbolised the end of harvest as it does now. Secondly it was a time when livestock were brought in from pasture and third it was a time when the Celts believed that souls of the dead revisited their homes and spirits and fairies had places set at the feasting table for them. Sounds like Halloween alright. But it was more. Samhain was essentially the ‘Celtic New Year’ and when you consider the island had its roots in agriculture – well the end of the harvest was the end of the year.
Some Neo Pagans will argue that Samhain is separate from Halloween and some Christian scholars will argue that Halloween has an entirely different origin but what I have discovered in researching my latest project is that most of the important Celtic festivals were assimilated in some way into Christianity. Those early missionaries including St Patrick himself knew that if you lived among the people you took on aspects of their culture that aligned with your beliefs.
So how do all these western cultures differ in their celebration of this? Well in New Zealand it is only the end of spring (Oct 31st) so the harvest aspect has little to no connection. It would be hard to find a locally grown pumpkin at that time of year. In essence our Halloween is driven by those same commercial drivers I talked of earlier with the addition of the internet. The Americans – well they’ve given it a bit of glitz and glamour. Think of it like St Patricks Day. They greened it, shamrocked it out and made it all Leprechauny. They’ve given it more colour. It looks a little like that in Ireland now too but when it comes to Halloween there are two subtle ( or not so subtle if you live in Finglas) differences that set Irish Halloweens apart. Bonfires and fireworks. When did they have big bonfires? Samhain. When do they do Fireworks? New Years.
Happy Celtic New Year!!!