As ubiquitous as Halloween celebrations are throughout the world, few of us know that the true origin of Halloween is a ceremony of honoring our ancestors and the day of the dead. A time when the veils between the worlds were thinner, and so many could “see” the other side of life. A time in the year when the spiritual and material worlds touched for a moment, and a greater potential exists for magical creation.
In ancient times, this day was a special and honored day of the year.
In the Celtic calendar, it was one of the most important days of the year, representing a mid point in the year, Samhain, or “summer’s end”. Occuring opposite the great Spring Festival of May Day, or Beltain, this day represented the turning point of the year, the eve of the new year which begins with the onset of the dark phase of the year.
And while celebrated by the Celts, the origin of this day has connections to other cultures as well, such as Egypt, and in Mexico as Dia de la Muerta, or the day of the dead.
The Celts believed that the normal laws of space and time were held in abeyance during this time, allowing a special window where the spirit world could intermingle with the living. It was a night when the dead could cross the veils and return to the land of the living to celebrate with their family, or clan. As such, the great burial mounds of Ireland were lit up with torches lining the walls, so the spirits of the dead could find their way.
Out of this ancient tradition comes one of our most famous icons of the holiday: the Jack-o-lantern. Originating from Irish folkfore, the Jack-o-lantern was used as a light for the lost soul of Jack, a notorious trickster, stuck between worlds. Jack is said to have tricked the devil into a truck of a tree and by carving an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, he trapped the devil there. His pranks denied him access to Heaven, and having angered the devil also to Hell, so Jack was a lost soul, trapped between worlds. As a consolation, the devil gave him a sole ember to light his way through the darkness between worlds.
Originally in Ireland turnips were carved out and candles placed inside as lanterns lit to help guide Jack’s lost spirit back home. Hence the term: Jack-o-lanterns. Later, when immigrants came to the new world, pumpkins were more readily available, and so the carved pumpkins carrying a lit candle served the same function.
FESTIVAL FOR THE DEAD
As the Church began to take hold in Europe the ancient Pagan rituals were co-opted into festivals of the Church. While the Church could not support a general feast for all the dead, it created a festival for the blessed dead, all those hallowed so, All Hallow’s, was transformed into All Saints and All Souls day.
Today, we have lost the significance of this most significant time of year which in modern times has turned into a candy fest with kids dressing up as action heroes.
Many cultures have ceremonies to honor their dead. In so doing, they complete a cycle of birth and death, and keep in line with a harmony and order of the universe, at time when we enter into the cycle of darkness for the upcoming year.