Monday, October 31, 2011

Celebrate the Forces of Nature on Halloween

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, and not because of my Gaelic roots. I just love to be scared, really scared. And when Katie was little, we loved to make several homemade Halloween costumes each year (one was never enough) and decorate the house in a big way. We had dozens of paper ghosts hanging in every room, lots of body parts from an old mannequin factory everywhere and even had an eerie dead woman in our attic window.

And she always had a party. One year we took two car loads of pre-teenage girls to a graveyard where I’d paid some teenage boys to hide and scare them. The screams and cries woke the dead, and the neighbors. It was so much fun.

It wasn’t until a trip to Ireland several years ago that I discovered the connection between yet another holiday and the forces of nature in pre-Christian life.

Halloween, as many of you know, has its roots in the medieval Gaelic festival of Samhain held to mark the end of the harvest, the end of the "lighter half" of the year and beginning of the "darker half". Bonfires played a large part in the festivities.

On our trip to Ireland, we happened to be at the Hill of Tara, the ancient throne of the Irish kings, on October 31. Bonfires were ablaze as they had been for thousands of years to ward off the coming killing frost and prepare for the winter darkness. It was also a time to remember and honor the dead.

Dressing like ghoulish dead was a way of copying the evils spirits to ward them off. Candle lanterns carved from large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces, placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. By the 19th century, children started going door to door disguised in costumes and masks, carrying turnip lanterns and offering some form of entertainment in return for food or coins.

So what started as a ritual to celebrate the end of the harvest and the beginning of long cold nights has made its way in to our homes . . . and offices for a day of mischief and fun.

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