Monday, October 31, 2011

A Celtic Halloween

Currently Reading: The Witch's Daughter by Paula Brackston

All Hallow's Eve is upon us.... an ancient celebration with its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain. Our Jack-o'lanterns are glowing outside on our balcony; I'm still in my witch's costume. Nathan and I have had our fill of candy and watched our annual History Channel special on the Salem Witch Trials.

The back of Mary Adams St. John's grave in Riley Cemetery. My great-great-great-great grandmother. I thought a tombstone picture is more than appropriate for Halloween. Besides, it is beautiful!
As it does every year, Halloween inspires me to think about the real history behind this holiday that I love so much. We may not celebrate Halloween the way the ancient Celts did, but the idea behind the holiday has survived for hundreds of years. I believe this is one of my favorite holidays because of that feeling of tradition. Although centuries, beliefs, and languages have changed, the tradition continues.
Samhain was celebrated by the Celts as a farewell to the light season and the beginning of the dark season, when nights were longer, days were colder, and the world died until the light season began once more. Because it bordered two seasons, it was a fragile night, where the veil between this world and the next was paper-thin and able to be breached. They welcomed their ancestors, but also feared the fragility and instability of the night. A combination of sacred and terrifying. On Samhain, the Celts burned bonfires throughout the night to ward off evil spirits; it was believed that on Samhain, not only could ancestors return from their graves, but evil spirits could also steal one away to the otherworld. It was a night of fear and a need for protection- something that is replicated, though unconsciously, in our costumes of ghosts, witches, and Disney characters. It was (and still remains) a night where everything is topsy-turvy- on this one night, we are allowed to traipse through darkened streets and knock on stranger's doors, demanding treats. We can dress outlandishly in public (as I did at work today) and not receive strange looks. It is a day when we can have fun and relax, before the cold comes again and we must bundle ourselves against the elements. It's true that the ancient Celts may not recognize our own Halloween traditions, but underneath it all, we still have a need to face our fears, celebrate life, and look back to the ones who have left this world.

In case you are interested, I have many wonderful books on the ancient Celts that I recommend. Celtic Heritage by Alwyn and Brinley Rees, The Flowering of Ireland by Katherine Scherman and Irish Folk History by Henry Glassie are some of my favorites. If fiction is your thing, I love the Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier. Although it is fantasy and not entirely historically accurate, it depicts Celtic society in a way that not many fiction authors do. Those books first inspired my fascination with Irish and Celtic history, and I love to revisit them.

Enjoy your Halloween! Just for kicks and giggles, here's a picture of me many Halloweens ago:

Note the book! I never stop reading! :)

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