Halloween: The Past in the Present
by Elspeth Sapphire
The days are shortening and dark comes early. There is a certain crispness to the air as we stroll the streets. Before long, the leaves are turning bright colors, only to slowly drift down to cover yards and streets.
Yes, autumn is here.
And with autumn comes a holiday enjoyed by both old and young…Halloween.
What is the appeal of this night? Why do we find people ranging from infants to grandparents donning costumes and for one night forgetting the mundane?
Halloween, or Samhain to the Pagans, has caught the imagination of people throughout the ages. From the ancient rituals honoring the dead to our modern custom of trick or treating, this one night is our time to put aside any fear of the dark and embrace any that walk there as welcome. Halloween costumes have become a huge part of the tradition of Halloween now as well to remind people what we used to fear and to have a little fun with it.
The ancients chose this time of year to celebrate the dead. The harvests were done and the fields laid empty. The days of sun were at a end and the days of dark were beginning. What better time to celebrate the powers of darkness.
This was not a celebration of fear; not always has darkness equaled fear. Instead for those who believed in rebirth, it was a time to reach and touch those beliefs. Just as the fields now laid bare, they would flower again in the spring. And so it was with us, dying only to be reborn.
So many of our Halloween customs can be traced to the past and the habits of our ancestors. Each time I look at the jack-o- lanterns shining with devilish grins, I can picture the original lanterns. Turnips were hollowed out and candles placed inside to protect them from the wind. These lanterns were placed on window sills to guide the dead back to their kin.
Since the apple harvest was celebrated at this same time, apples often played an important place in the festivals. When you bob for apples or dangle apples on strings, you are walking in the footsteps of other people and other times.
What would Halloween be without costumes and masks? Yet, have many of us wondered why we so enjoying the wearing of costumes? Dressing up frees us from the ties of our everyday life. For a brief moment of time, we become a princess or an Indian or a cartoon character. This gives us a freedom of action that we normally wouldn’t have.
Masks have also long been associated with death and the gods. Was early man trying to understand death when he put on a mask of a dead one? Perhaps, donning a mask could put us in touch with the gods themselves.
The black cat, familiar to many a storybook witch, was priced because cats could sense the dead. They could be used as a kind of early warning system. Why black cats? What better color for this time when the darkness rules?
Every where I look, I come face to face with the stereotyped image of the witch. Wicked or not, they all looked alike: greenish skin, a wart, misshapened face, dressed all in black. In these days of striving for the politically correct, many are trying to remove this image from Halloween celebrations. I guess they don’t see what I do. I look at the Halloween witches and remember pictures of the dark Goddess, dressed in black and with her high pointed hat. She would wait at the crossroads to guide the dead to their rest until the time of rebirth. Evil? I don’t believe so, anymore than I believe death is evil. Instead it is one more symbol that has passed down through the years to spice October 31st.
Just look around. We are surrounded by symbols of the past that we take for granted. The brooms the witches rode. The cauldrons that bubbled with potions vile. Even trick or treating could be traced back to Celts who went house to house collecting treats of apples.
It has been truly said that there is nothing new under the sun. However, this doesn’t have to hinder our enjoyment. On Halloween night, you can find me walking the night. Without fear, I will travel, listening to the laughter of the children, as I go back to another time and place.