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Friday, October 31, 2008

All Hallows Eve

The history of this day is connected with the Feast of All Saints. On the eve, all sorts of things were supposed to happen, but we have mostly thought of the day as one to dress up in a costume and go out to collect treats or play tricks on neighbors. At boarding school we had a party planned always by the Third Academic or Juniors. We were allowed to plan the dinner, decorate, and then invent the night entertainment for the Halloween party. Since we were reading Macbeth, we had a cauldron with an artificial fire under it in a corner with the three witches but before that we had taken the entire boarding school on a nocturnal walk that included the cemetery with ghosts popping up all over and a realistic figure hanging from the loft of the barn. It was perhaps the most fun Halloween I have ever experienced; I also remember one time when some of us in about fifth grade went to a party as the "Dead End Kids" and we were so comfortable while others could hardly move without destroying their costumes. This is not a very spiritual reflection today, but I am preparing for all Saints! Here is something of the history of Halloween:

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 boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.
During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.
By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas.

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