It's a scary time of year. Filled with strange omens, early sunsets, sudden changes of weather, wandering beggars pounding at your door, and the abidingly glorious spectacle of the autumn foliage. We should all look this good when we fall to earth.
What we learned about this season last year was that Halloween comes very close to Election Day, and sometimes the two exchange places. Halloween is clearly the lighter-hearted of the now widely observed autumn holidays. It’s on Election Day that ghosts, monsters, and spirits of the dead walk the land.
Some of us find any excuse at all to celebrate in autumn. In our household we have favorite pieces of music or albums that evoke the season’s spirit. We associate the beauty of Fall with the music of Windham Hill piano master George Winston, especially his albums “Autumn” and “Forest.”
I also find the music of Celtic harp virtuoso and musicologist Aine Minogue particularly soulful when the sun declines, the shadows lengthen and, according to ancient belief, the barrier between the material world and the world of the spirit thins.
The popular origin theory for Halloween is the Celtic festival Samhain. Though typically associated with Ireland today, the Celts were once the dominant culture all over western Europe. When Caesar was conquering the Gauls in France – those were Celts. As were the Britons.
Later, when the people of these lands were converted to Christianity, the Roman church took control of their calendar. The Christian stamp was laid on top of a seasonal parade of feast days that were still rich with the old traditions. The Celtic autumn festival Samhain, one of the seasonal ‘fire festivals,’ involved lighting bonfires and – here’s the clincher – wearing costumes to ward off ghosts.
The Christian holy day celebrated at this time is All Saints Day. Many saints have their own feast days, so all the others (lest they feel neglected) are all bundled into All Saints Day, celebrated on Nov. 1. Saints are “hallowed,” that is, sacred figures. So All Hallows Eve became the name for the day before All Saints Day, a day when folks had the fun of lighting fires, costuming and otherwise japing around. They would have plenty of time to be good on the day after.
Here’s what Aine Minogue’s album “Between the Worlds” says about the Celtic festival of Samhaim:Samhain was the feast that marked the end of the "light half" of the year and the beginning of the "dark half." The light half was that of the people, the dark half belonged to the earth, the cycle of time being expressed in the basic duality of darkness and light. Samhain, or Halloween as it has come to be known, was actually New Year's Eve in the Celtic calendar. For the Celts, the dark always preceded the light, and day began at dusk, not dawn.”
Samhain, this borderland of seasons, between light and dark, also bridged the dualities of life and death:
This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.”
Aine’s research also extends to the origin of trick-or-treating: “The children's tradition that otherworldly creatures come to life on Halloween has its origins in the ancient feast of Samhain." However, she adds, "the Celts' main concern with the other world was to receive wisdom from their ancestors.”
Samhain, a time of borders and passages between this world and the next, between growing season and fallow season, was also “a time for solitary introspection and reflection,” she writes. “The custom of dressing up in costume began back then. It was acceptable to stretch the boundaries by assuming a different identity to welcome the supernatural.”
This year I think I will dress up as myself.
We thought about carving a pumpkin with the features of a raving lunatic and plastering a hank of straw on top to suggest the image of the monster who slipped into our world this time of year one year ago.
In the end, however, we decided not to tempt fate a second time. We turned on the porch light and handed out treats. I wore the mask of a contented soul and munched on leftover candy to sweeten my disposition.
Here’s a link to the song “Fyvie Castle” from Aine Minogue's album “Between the Worlds.”