“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us!” ~ An old Scottish prayer
Watching a friend struggle to create an owl costume for her pre-schooler to wear this Halloween, I asked her why she didn’t persuade him to think of something simpler. “He says he wants to be an owl because it’s the scariest thing he can think of,” my friend replied.
Ahh. Precisely. Her little guy is wiser than I am. He knows instinctively what I had forgotten: From ancient times, the point of Halloween has always been to confront our fears of the dark, of death, of evil spirits and all the things that “go bump in the night.”
Death always has been and probably always will be a mystery and mysteries make people nervous. Our fears and anxieties about what happens next has driven the imagination of peoples probably since the beginning of time. Folk stories and songs and literature are full of both lovely ideas of angels in heaven playing harps and the opposite: demons dancing in the fires of a hell. As curious as we all are about what happens after death, we’re not lining up to die to find out. So we’re left to our imaginations.
Among the scariest notions of an afterlife that has been handed down to us are the beliefs and rituals practiced by the Celtic Druids 2,000 years ago in Ireland, England and parts of France. Theirs was a pagan religion with particularly vivid ideas of a dark and treacherous spirit world.
For the Druids, the turning of the year was celebrated on November 1 (called Sanhaim). It was a day to mark the death of summer and the beginning of a dark and forbidding winter. On the night before, they believed that spirits could cross from the world of the dead to the world of the living in order to look for a body to inhabit. The people wore costumes to confuse the spirits and made offerings to appease them. This is believed to be the source of our “trick or treat.” Communities built huge bonfires and made sacrifices to their gods.
All Souls Day was established somewhere around 1000 A.D.by the Catholic pope as an attempt to replace a pagan celebration with one that was sanctioned by the church. All Souls Day was also called All-hallows day and the night before began to be called All-hallows Eve. That evolved into Halloween. The celebration is believed to have been introduced to America by the waves of Irish and English immigrants in the 19th century.
By the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Halloween had become more about entertainment and less about religion, superstition, magic, and roaming spirits. Nonetheless, kids today still relive some of the ancient roots of the holiday by dressing up as ghosts and goblins and marauding the neighborhood for sweets.