by C. H. Wells

A Brief History

For the ancient Celts, and for some other peoples even today, November 1st marked the beginning of the New Year, making October 31st the final, and dying day, of the old. With the shift to a new year, came the iconic image of an agéd “Father Time,” with his long, hoary beard and hair, who carried a scythe to cut down the old and make way for the new – emphasizing the necessity, the inevitability and the finality of death.

Preparing for winter

In former days, when pretty much everyone raised their own food crops and kept their own animals, the season of autumn was, indeed, a season of death. Not only did we gather the fruits of the trees, which had completed their cycle, and hew down the crops in the fields, but fall was a traditional time for the slaughtering of animals. Those raised for meat would be sold for slaughter at the local fair, or butchered, preserved and put up for the family’s use over the coming winter months.

Everything around us in nature appeared to be dying, too. The sun was lower in the sky, shone for a briefer period of the day and was far less intense. Bears, frogs and beavers began to disappear from view. And the leaves of deciduous trees would turn colour, some as crimson as the blood of slaughtered animals, before falling to the ground and beginning to decay. Little wonder then, that in northern climates at this time of year, our thoughts should turn to death.

In the yearly solar cycle, the first days of November marked the mid-point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. Summer was over, but winter had not yet begun. Yet the earth had already started to turn cold and bare, dead and unforgiving. It no longer produced its bounty. The time of growing things, of living things, was over, and before us lay only the dark, the cold and the long dead months of winter. The balance was about to be tipped and there would be no going back.

But for now … for this brief, ‘awe-ful’ moment when our fate yet lay in abeyance … the season itself seemed to hang suspended between life and death. It was a time of transition, and a state of flux, when the world held its breath … and waited.

Out of this moment came All Hallows Eve [aka Hallowe’en].

No one knows precisely the origins of the observance, but we do know that “All Hallows Eve” was the “eve” or “evening” before “All Hallows Day” [better known today, perhaps, as All Saints Day, followed by All Souls Day], which was a celebration in honour of the spirits, or “hallows,” of the dead. It is highly likely that this was one of those many widely-observed pagan traditions eventually adopted by Christian churches and absorbed into their own religious calendars.

We know that in folklore it came to be believed that in that moment when the old year died – and before the new could take its place – there was a beat, a breath, a moment “in between,” when the veil that separated the realm of the living from the realm of the dead grew thin. And in that tenuous moment, it was said, all hell – quite literally – could break loose. In our ancestors’ understanding, when the laws of nature stood abated … when the past and the future hung suspended … when the night held still in that in-between moment … the dead and the living would once more walk the same plane.

Tales abound that have secured the reputation of this mysterious and magical night. Stories of the living struck dumb – or dead – by a visitation. Stories of strangers spoken to on the road, seen walking late at night, or heard mounting the stairs … who, it would later be discovered, could only possibly have been a former resident, long gone from this Earth.

Ghostly hands were seen reaching through walls. Weeping – or laughter – were heard where no one appeared. Strange vapours and odd lights were reported, even by those well-respected, who were known to be sound and sane.

“Things that went bump” were aplenty on this night of the year, and it was not uncommon to find that other things would “move themselves” in the course of the night. Many felt certain that family members would return to visit on this night. Others feared less friendly encounters. And all were warned … Heaven help you if one of the hallowed dead had a grudge against you when they left!

For this reason, and to welcome any loved ones who might once again be walking the Earth, people left treats of food outside their doors [some to welcome, and some to appease], for any spirits who might return. Lamps were fashioned, in frightening form, to scare away evil spirits. The same lamps would light the way home for any loved ones “lost” on the other side.

People dressed in costumes that represented the dead, in hopes of fooling any malevolent returning spirits into thinking that they were spirits, too, thereby affording them some protection. Not to mention that hiding one’s identity, and pretending to be the spirit of someone who had passed on, also made it easier to abscond with a few of those tasty treats left at people’s doors. Leaving a nasty ‘treat’ in return, or playing a dirty trick, could then, of course, be blamed on a “vengeful spirit.”

It is impossible for us to know today, how much of this, initially, was done tongue-in-cheek, and how much was taken seriously. But as our society became more sophisticated and our scientific knowledge increased, our observances came less and less to reflect any genuine belief in the occult, and came to serve only as a shared tradition to help cement our sense of community.

Indeed, in modern times, it would seem, we are all “in on the joke” and we openly and overtly only pretend to be afraid and pretend to allay our fears by buying off the ‘spirits’ who come to our doors for their booty. Certainly none of us, today, actually believes any longer that the dead really walk the Earth on All Hallows Eve. Do we?

A Different Kind of “Celebration”

For those who might still feel there’s “something special” about Hallowe’en, but who might wish to observe it differently – to celebrate not what dies, but what lives on, instead, here’s a little suggestion:

On All Hallows Eve, and/or the following two days, for a brief time in the evening, arrange a serving of food and drink, on your best china, and place them – in as beautiful a setting as you can – in front of a mirror, in a quiet location of your home. Light a candle and ensure that it is visible in the mirror. Make sure the food is fresh, “lively,” colourful and delicious [perhaps a few favorite things].

Offer it as a gift for those who’ve passed on. A small remembrance of life here on Earth. Offer it with your affection and best wishes for their journey in the afterlife – a little “(I) Care” package from home.

I suspect you, too, will sense a profound “sacredness” in doing this. Even feel, at some point, as if those you seek to honour are there – on just the other side of that mirror – and tasting once more, in spirit, the rich fruits of the Earth. It makes for a joyous celebration and sharing for both. And a way of honouring the dead, and this ancient celebration, without all the hype.