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From behind Medium.com's paywall: Halloween: Tricking Darkness and Death — a COVID tale

It was Ireland and Scotland that gifted us with Halloween. It is a time of darkness and fear — daylight contracts to less than ten hours a day, and our forebears worried about surviving lean times and sickness in the coming winter. The scrim that separates the living from the dead, and the human from the mites of magic and mischief, is at its threadiest. The Celts of 2,000 years ago, and the Wiccans of every age, call it Samhain ("sow-win"), and it is the celebration of the new year. As befits the new year, there was a bit of cleaning involved. Each home extinguished its hearth fire before joining the community at the roaring bonfires that the Druid priests had built. Dressed in animal skins and heads, they gathered to sacrifice a portion of their crops and butchering — and, I think, to dance to the holy flames in order to drive back the dark.


The fires attracted insects, which attracted bats. They became part of the Samhain symbols and it was thought that bats in the home (remember, these were thatched cottages, usually attached to the closed shelter for animals for the sake of sharing body heat; bats would be common visitors) meant a man would die in the new year. Bats wheeling around the home signified a female death. They were feared as pronouncements of destruction and death.


After the bonfire rituals were over, each home took a faggot of the fire to relight their hearths with sacred flame. As well, they placed food and drink outside their doors, a ward against the mysteries that passed through the veil — the souls of the dead, pixies, faeries, even the devil himself — that could ruin the laid-by crops, sour the milk, or bring on sickness.


We have relics of the Celts's jack-o-lanterns, gourds carved into Voldemort-like ugliness to scare off the mischievous and tricksters and they were practical, lighting a farmer's way home from the fields or a wise woman's response to a baby being born.


It is the latter that gave rise to the iconic image of the witch, but only after the Church converted the Celts of the British Isles, which happened by about 400 A.D. The genius of the early Church was that it took elements of the beliefs and holidays of new locations it converted, stirred in some theology and produced something that new Christians were comfortable with. These traditions survive in certain Roman Catholic holy days of obligation like the Feast of the Annunciation, and in the three big holidays we all know — Easter, Halloween, and Christmas.


The belief in witches is tied to the healing women and their knowledge of plants, roots, and herbs. The Church favored the idea of doctors, a man's profession, and so the persecution began. A quick get-away, it was said, was for the witch to turn herself into a black cat. The broom was ubiquitous to womankind in the Middle Ages, and it was sometimes used as a walking stick in inclement weather. Imagine a female healer, coming in the night from her cauldron-concoctions to help a farmer with the sweating sickness. Imagine a priest or newly Christianized Karen seeing her walking through the snow with her broom to support her and her cat determined to accompany her. It's easy to see the healer as mysterious and darkly magical if you have the Church's prohibition of these women pushing you to paranoia.


"Fair is foul, and foul is fair," the Three Sisters chant in the opening of Macbeth, "Hover through the fog and filthy air." The few lines of this scene are redolent of what, by 1606, healers-turned-witches, featuring their supposed control of weather, their ability to prophesize and change the natural order, and the witches's familiars, gray cat and toad.


The Church was never innocent, and its first festivities set at the end of October time of Halloween by the Church were, not unexpectedly, Roman. Ferlia, set in late October, was a commemoration of the dead, quickly followed by the celebration of Pomona, the goddess of trees and fruit. Her symbol was the apple — is this ringing any bells?


It was not strange, then, that the Church consecrated November 1st as All Saints Day, and the 2nd as All Souls Day in the 11th century. (If you went to Catholic school when I did, you lucked out. All Souls Day is a holy day of obligation. We were obligated to go to Mass but had the day off from school. It was bitchin'.) October 31 is the hallowed eve of an important liturgical celebration and became know as…wait for it…Halloween. Trick-or-treating is the grandchild of the exchange of giving soul cakes to beggars in exchange for their prayers for the richer folks's dead. As time passed, children began to go a-souling as well. In turn, a-souling gave way to mumming, which was more fun. People dressed up as ghosts, demons, and other malevolent spirits and would recite a poem or sing a song in exchange for their hand-out.


And there were many poems, songs, scary tales associated with the Irish and Scottish observances. The Jack in jack-o-lantern refers, in Irish legend, to the drunkard, Stingy Jack, who stars in many stories of tricking or making pacts with the devil and is ultimately rejected by both hell and heaven, condemned to roam the earth with a jack-o-lantern to guide his way. The aspect of roaming is tied to the will-o'-the-wisp, or foolish fire, that twinkles scarily over the peat bogs.


The other great observance of the dead that takes place over All Hallow's Eve through All Souls Day on November 2nd, of course, is Día de los Muertos, a three-day long Central American festival of the dead. The Día de los Muertos skeletons and skulls with which we are familiar are tailored creations, painted with the favorite things, work, values, and other pictures associated with one who has passed. These are placed on home altars along with loved ones' favorite foods, drink, candy, a wash basin and towel, and flowers, usually marigolds, the flower of the dead. Candles and incense are lit to guide the souls home.


It's also a time to tidy gravesites and, on All Souls Day, everyone gathers in the graveyards to picnic and reminisce and feast with those who have passed. Día de los Muertos is, once again, a perfect amalgamation of the Roman Catholic Church and pre-Columbian customs. The marigolds, paper banners, skulls and skeletons, cleaning and offerings all come from the old civilizations that succeeded one another in Central America and Mexico.


Día de los Muertos is the most important holiday of the year, surpassing Christmas of Cinco de Mayo. Preparations for it take place months in advance.


It is not the frightening holiday that Halloween is; the dead are welcomed rather than bribed. If death isn't exactly welcomed, it is vastly different from the Celtic fear. It is said in Mexico that a person experiences three deaths: "The first death is the failure of the body. The second is the burial of the body. The most definitive death is the third death. This occurs when no one is left to remember us."


Día de los Muertos is the last continuation of life and love.


We can draw from this history some ideas of how to celebrate Halloween in the era of COVID. Have you and your kids done any excavation of your family tree? Who can you contact to find out more? This is the perfect day to go over old family photos, do some research on how the generations you can trace might have celebrated Halloween. You can buy blank skulls online or at a number of stores: decorate them either as you wish, in memory of a lost one, or as how you and your circle would like to be remembered. Masks, candles, dolls, streamers and other seasonal crafts can be viewed at GrowingUpBilingual.


Consider these traditions: bobbing for apples was once called snap-apple, in which players tried to catch an apple hanging from a doorframe by using their teeth. Irish parents often invent treasure hunts for their kids — the reward is up to you.


You might try carving squashes, or bake barnbrack, a raisin cake that the Irish eat on Halloween. It, too, predicts future events: finding a ring in the cake means marriage, and a piece of straw foretells a prosperous new year. Maybe Halloween is a good day or night to make apple sauce or plan a dinner that incorporates the foods of the celebration — squash and pumpkin, apples and other late fruits and/or vegetables.


I love the backstories of old holidays and as many games and crafts as there are for Halloween, I have to admit I like the aspect of death accepted in a season of death courted.


Tabhair aire duit féin anocht.



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