October 27, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Sure, and it’s an Irish Halloween we’re having

Cynthia DewesGuess what? It seems we have the Irish to thank for the way we celebrate a holiday other than St. Patrick’s Day. It’s Halloween! I found this information in an ancient copy of Liguorian magazine. It’s amazing the things you can learn if you clean out cabinets.

It seems that 20 centuries ago, the Celts celebrated the end of the autumn season on the Eve of Samhain (pronounced “sowen”), which later became Halloween.

Samhain was the beginning of the Celtic New Year, the end of the grazing season. On this day, new fires were set and the old ones extinguished to symbolize hope for abundance in the new year, and light conquering the powers of winter darkness.

While this sounds like a cheerful occasion, the night before was thought to be “a night of danger and dread,” a time when the coming together of the old and the new opened the mortal and nether worlds to each other. This freed the spirits of the dead to return to this world to even scores, wandering the earth in pursuit of justice. Also at this time, people could read the future by following certain practices. Some of our favorite Halloween customs come from such beliefs.

Bobbing for apples was a way for Celts to learn who would “marry, thrive or die in the new year.” If they caught an apple stem with their teeth, they’d peel the apple and throw the peel over their shoulder. Supposedly, the peel would form a letter of the alphabet indicating the name of the future bride or groom.

Black cats were thought to be people who were evil in this life, and then were changed into animals as punishment for their sins. If they crossed your path it was bad luck, and if you saw one that stared at you, you’d better go the other way fast. And the phrase “knock on wood” came from the Celtic idea that spirits lived in trees and could be kept friendly if you knocked on them to say “Hi.”

Jack-o-lanterns also come from Irish legend. It seems there was a miserly prankster named Stingy Jack who was refused entrance to heaven when he died because he’d been too stingy to help the poor. He was also denied entrance to hell because he’d played a practical joke on the devil.

Since he couldn’t go to either place, Jack had to walk the earth each night until Judgment Day. When he complained it was too dark at night, Satan threw him a red-hot coal to light his way. It was too hot to handle, so clever Jack picked up a nearby gourd and fashioned a lantern from it by cutting holes for the light to shine out.

Now, there are other theories about the origins of All Saints Day and Halloween, and their timing to coincide with a popular pagan holiday. Some say the feast of All Saints began when Pope Boniface IV christianized the Pantheon, a temple where Romans worshipped their gods and goddesses, by dedicating it under the title St. Mary of the Martyrs. Others think it started when Pope Gregory III dedicated an Oratory in St. Peter’s Basilica to all the saints, whose feast was held on Nov. 1 from then on.

That’s all fine. But, personally, I like the idea that Irish missionaries brought Halloween to us. After all, didn’t they save civilization?

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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