There’s more to Halloween than a candy fest with kids dressing up as ghouls and goblins. Trisha Hughes reveals six things you need to know about the Day of the Dead.
Halloween has been called by many names, and for centuries it’s been considered one of the most magical nights of the year. The original word ‘Hallowe’en’ actually means ‘hallowed evening’ and the last day of October has also been called All Hallows’ Eve, Day of the Dead, All Saints’ Eve and Samhain (Summer’s End).
The Celts believed that the normal laws of space and time were held in abeyance on October 31, allowing a window to open where the spirit world could intermingle with the living. Many believed it was a night when the dead could cross the veils and physically return to the land of the living. As such, burial mounds were lit at midnight, so that the spirits of the dead could find their way in the darkness. Outof this ancient tradition comes one of our most famous icons of the holiday: the Jack-o-lantern.
The Jack-o-lantern was used as a light for the lost soul of Jack, a notorious trickster, stuck between worlds. Originally, Celts placed candles in hollowed-out turnips to help guide Jack’s spirit home. Hence the term: Jack-o-lantern. Later, when immigrants came to the new world, pumpkins were more readily available, and so carved-out pumpkins holding a lit candle served the same function.
In one sense, Halloween was a celebration of plenty, of the autumn harvest. There was, however, the other face of the festival – it ushered in winter. Halloween was the feast that prefaced months of darkness, cold and hunger. What was coming was the season of death – not just of leaves, flowers and light, but of humans, as more would perish in the winter than at any other time of year. That was why Halloween was widely regarded as the time when the spirits of darkness and fear, the evil and malevolent forces of nature, were let loose upon the earth.
People reacted to this forbidding prospect in two different ways. In ancient times, Halloween was the festival of prophecy in which people gathered together and most frequently tried to predict the future. In premodern times, the prediction most often sought was who would live through the winter. Bonfires were lit for protection and torches carried around homes and fields sun-wise, from east to west. The flames, smoke and even the ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers.
Another reaction was to mock darkness and fear by singing songs about spirits and lighting candles on the graves of the dead. In the 16th century, people began going from house to house impersonating the souls of the dead. They recited verses or songs and received offerings on their behalf, usually a small round cake called a soul cake. Trick or treat?