Halloween: A User's Guide 


Halloween is no Hallmark Holiday. While it may have evolved into a kitschy festival of hard candy and plastic masks, its roots are actually thousands of years old and every bit as dark and sinister as we like to pretend.

Picture this. You're a poor sheepherder living in a small house built of stone or sod, watching the days get darker and colder. The last harvest is in, and you know there won't be any new harvest for several months. Snow could trap you in your home at any time, while the cold rain falls almost every day.

If winter lingers you could starve. Sickness travels quickly and the weakest will fall ill and die. Babies and new mothers are especially vulnerable, but it's hard to find warmth and food must be rationed carefully.

You don't believe in one god but several gods and demigods who could be cruel or kind on a whim. You believe in ghosts and mythical creatures, just as you believe that one night a year, Samhain, the line separating the world of the dead from the world of the living is broken and the dead walk the earth once again. Some of the dead reunite with families, others cause mischief, and others enter the bodies of druids after a sacrifice to predict the future.

People wear costumes, animal heads and skins to fool evil spirits and light bonfires to chase away the darkness, make sacrifices of food, and to beg the gods for mercy.

Then one day the Romans show up, conquering and pacifying as they go, demanding tributes in exchange for roads and grander buildings. The world gets a little larger but it also turns out that the Romans celebrated something similar to Samhain as well at that time of the year, a festival to commemorate the passing of the dead as well as a festival to honour the harvest on which all life depends.

About 700 years later Christianity will conquer Ireland, and soon after Pope Boniface would name November 1 All Saints Day to replace the still popular pagan festival of Samhain with something more holy. However, if you've read anything about saints and all the different ways they were boiled, burned and dismembered by non-believers then you'll realize that Boniface probably didn't do much to make Samhain less sinister. Samhain became All-Hallows Eve and eventually Halloween, mixing Celtic, Roman and Catholic traditions into a single festival.

From there it was really just a hop, skip and jump to modern day, where we have kept traditions alive, like carving scary faces in gourds (squash in the old days, pumpkins in present day) wearing costumes and generally causing mischief.


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