By Caroline Woodiel (From the McClelland Library’s blog Oct. 31, 2014)
As our little ghosts and goblins gather before heading out to spend the evening trick or treating, it is amazing to reflect on how long the tradition they are embarking upon has been a part of our collective culture.
Halloween, as we know it today, comes from the Celtic New Year holiday Samhain. The ancient Celts believed the year ended with a full harvest and the new year started with winter. Celtic days, like their years, started with the approaching darkness; sun down. At sundown on what is now the last day of October, the Celts would extinguish their bonfires to signify the end of the year. Then as the sun drifted fully from sight and the new year started, the ancient Celts would relight their fires and celebrate the year to come.
A day between years, Samhain was considered a time when the veil between worlds was fluid. Tir na n’Og was accessible, and many Celts dressed in costumes to keep from being recognized by the spirits and creatures of the other side. Turnips were carved out and used to hold candles, leading to the Jack O’Lanterns still carved today. As W.B. Yeat’s Fairy and Folktales of Ireland recounts, creatures like the Pooka , hidden from the waist down on a hill in Leinster, would tell fortunes to visitors of their upcoming year. The magical night was a time of celebration of hard work and harvest, reflection on the past, and a time to look forward to the future to come.
So like many of our Celtic ancestors, tonight we can look back on the thousands of years of celebration that unite us with those long gone. While the distance between our world and another on this night is disputable, our connection with those who celebrated it is undeniable. The magic present tonight with every trick or treater is that of human tradition and our ability to reach through time and celebrate side by side with those we’ve never known.
A Poem to get your Halloween Started
From Fairy and Folktales of Ireland – edited by W.B. Yeats
– by William Allingham
I heard the dogs howl in the moonlight night;
I went to the window to see the sight;
All the Dead that ever I knew
Going one by one and two by two.
On the pass’d, and on they pass’d;
Townsfellows all, from first to last;
Born in the moonlight of the lane,
Quench’d in heavy shadow again.
Schoolmates, marching as when we play’d
At soldiers once-but now more staid;
Those were the strangest sight to me
Who were drown’d, I knew, in the awful sea.
Straight and handsome folk; bent and weak, too;
Some that I loved, and gasp’d to speak to;
Some but a day in their churchyard bed;
Some that I had not known were dead.
A long, long crowd-where each seem’d lonely,
Yet of them all there was one, one only,
Raised a head or look’d my way.
She linger’d a moment,-she might not stay.
How long since I saw that fair pale face!
Ah! Mother dear! might I only place
My head on thy breast, a moment to rest,
While thy hand on my tearful cheek were prest!
On, on, a moving bridge they made
Across the moon-stream, from shade to shade,
Young and old, women and men;
Many long-forgot, but remember’d then.
And first there came a bitter laughter;
A sound of tears the moment after;
And then a music so lofty and gay,
That every morning, day by day,
I strive to recall it if I may.
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