Hallowe'en, the Day of the Witches, All Hallows' Evening, an import from the Americas, a commercial exercise in selling costumes to kids? What does it mean anyway? In fact it means a lot, its roots are extremely deep, it did not come from the Americas, it is a universal expression of respect, hope and togetherness. Let us take a trip through time...
275 BC. The evenings are drawing in, the nights are getting longer, there is less and less to reap from what was sown earlier in the year. The Winter is coming, six months of darkness, less work, less diversion, more responsibility for the collective unit, called the village. It is the death of the agricultural year, marked by Sahwin, or Sowin, written Samhain...it begins at sunset on October 31. It is a time when the Aos sí, the bad spirits coming with Winter, need to be expelled by building a bonfire, bringing the community together to eat and drink, eat and drink... together.
To share. To see who has what, or not, to see why the lady on the hill is not present at the festivity, and to see what she needs to survive the period without light. Self-regulating communities, an absence of governance from outside, the village regulating itself through the perpetuation of lore, through tradition, and general acceptance of what is right, village law. These rites occurred across Europe, were respected by the vast majority of the inhabitants of the micro-kingdoms and served as a benchmark during the year, a calendar dictating work, all activities and perpetuating well-being for all.
The bonfire is a gathering point. It is also a source of cleansing, cleaning the old, preparing for the new, separating the death of the agricultural year from the void which in turn will connect with the birth of another. The first bonfire, at Samhain, or the evening before the Saints (the persons with halos, or Hallows, or All Hallows' Evening or E'en) is as much a symbol of life (hope for a new year, and pulling together, protecting life during the dark season) as it is of death (end of the agricultural year).
The benchmark spells a message "Bring your cattle inside, finish your harvest". Otherwise? Otherwise the witches will contaminate them and kill your animals, so make sure you get your act together and don't slack.
The night was the time of terror. Unknown noises, unknown beings, demons, monsters, ghouls, spirits. You cannot see it, you cannot control it, the imagination can run wild. Someone said a Demon ran amok yesterday in the next village...tonight it will be ours. The Demon was perhaps a donkey which escaped from a field and walked along the cobbled stones on a foggy night, possibly sending the village drunkard fleeing into the night screaming "The Devil is after me!" and the story reaches far and wide.
The night back then was the feud of the owl, white, the symbol of death (people used to wear white at funeral rites), white was the color of the Moon, Luna, feminine (in how many languages is "Moon" feminine?), at a time when societies were more matriarchal than patriarchal, at a time when the dead were buried with a white effigy on their chests, with waves representing the feathers of the owl, which were also the waves of water, meaning life, from where humanity came, and death, to where it goes. Eternity, the egg with no end and no beginning celebrated at Easter (the other side of the Winter void), the fertility Festival symbolized by the rabbit.
As time went on, societies became patriarchal, the Moon gave way to the Sun (masculine), the color of death became black, not white, the priestess gave way to the priest. The witch doctor, the holder of the symbol of power over nature, the serpent wrapped around the stick (today still the symbol of pharmacies), became male, and the female was relegated to a position of subservience.
These were common values, respected by all. All those who sowed in the Fertility Festivals in Spring, all those who stored their food for the Winter. Potatoes? No, only after the sixteenth century. Before that it was beets, turnips and chestnuts. Turnips were hollowed out and lit with oil inside to make a face... today we use pumpkins. Chestnuts were dried, ground into flour and shared. People pulled together. The onus was not on thriving, but rather surviving.
We may argue about the dates. October 31, Hallowe'en. September 29 Haf Bach Mihangel in Wales; October 7 Missa Britt in Sweden, the October Fest of Altweibersommer in Germany and Austria, the October Fest of Norn in the Nordic countries since the time of the Vikings, Nyara Vénasszonyok in Hungary, Trezekeszomer in Flanders, Guy Fawkes in the UK (November 5), Saint Martin's Day on November 11. November 11? Armistice Day? National Day of Poland?
Hallowe'en is not a "stupid American festival" because to be an American one not celebrated by native Americans, it had to be exported from Europe, and reimported back again after it was dropped on the Eastern shores. Compare the burning of scarecrows in Iberia with the burning of the "Guy" in the UK, compare "trick or treat" with the banging on doors and asking for "God's Bread".
All these dates are based on ancient celebrations which were underpinned by the respect for communal well-being, the need for survival of the community. The message is friendship, sharing in time of need, the message is togetherness against a common foe, the unknown, what we cannot control.
Today, over two thousand years later, we continue to celebrate Hallowe'en with Trick or Treat, with pumpkins, parties for kids. Today, we go to a shopping mall to buy costumes, we go to a shopping mall to buy chestnuts, and fireworks...why? Because that's what we do at this time of year.
Can we ask why? We just do. And what happened to three thousand years of history, decency and respect for human life?