Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Ancient Celtic Traditions Influence Our Modern Notions of Halloween ~ by Diane J. Reed

Photo Credit: http://tinyurl.com/8nxdq78

Diane J. Reed, author of the magical love story Twixt, has a special surprise for us today! Earlier this month, Diane mentioned she was giving a book club talk on the link between ancient Celtic traditions and Halloween. Oh, how I wanted to go to that talk! But since we don't live anywhere near each other, I asked Diane if she'd be willing to share some of what she talked about in a guest post!

š The Past is Present
How Ancient Celtic Traditions Influence Our Modern Notions of Halloween
By Diane J. Reed, author of TWIXT
 

Who doesn’t love a good ghost story or relish the spooky fun of Halloween? As with many holidays, this celebration has had a variety of influences over time (not the least of which is modern marketing—check out the displays at Target!). But many scholars believe one of its earliest origins is with the ancient Celts of Ireland and their festival of Samhain (roughly translated as “Summer’s End”). The Celts celebrated the culmination of their harvest season and start of their new year on November 1st with festivities and bonfires that included rituals for honoring the dead. Why? Because according to their sense of time, depicted as the Wheel of the Year that marked their planting, growing, and harvesting periods, two crucial dates--Beltane in spring and Samhain in fall--represent a unique moment when they believed the "veil is thinnest between worlds," making it easier for them to communicate with their ancestors and other supernatural entities. Hence, our modern images of spooks and trick-or-treaters harkens back to the idea that the Celts believed that spirits more easily roamed the earth during this time, and it would be best to either appease them or to ward them off! So to keep less desirable spirits at bay, the Celts carved scary faces into turnips (the predecessor to the jack-o-lantern) and offered treats (such as homemade biscuits and cakes) to the more agreeable spirits, such as their deceased relatives or roaming bands of fairies (a.k.a. the "good people"). Divination was also thought to be more accurate this time of year, so many prophetic rituals were employed that included peeling apples in a continuous strand to see if their falling shapes revealed the initials of potential lovers, or glancing into mirrors and squinting to discern if the faces of their next suitors might appear. Over the centuries, as the Celtic lands became Christianized, Samhain eventually was relagated to the religious holiday of All Hallows Eve on October 31st, which later morphed into what we call Halloween. 

What’s important to note, however, is that for the Celts, this other “realm” that was so near throughout Samhain was never considered very far away during the rest of the year. For the Celts, the past is always present—in every mound, tree, boulder, lake or mountain. These places are rife with history and lore that to the Celtic mind were alive and animated “now,” not just “then.” In modern times, we tend to think of life as linear, with one event following after the other (and there’s no going back!), as though life passes by on a conveyor belt or sweeps down a river. But try to imagine, if you will, that time has parallel dimensions that are not a line but are rather a circle or connection of spirals. “What lies beneath” might be a more appropriate catch phrase, because instead of viewing time as a swift moving stream, ancient Celts viewed it as more of a lake. We who are living now are simply leaves floating on the surface of that lake—but underneath us is a vast depth filled with All-Time, a combination of the lives of our ancestors who are still active in their realm as well as mythical/historical figures and events, and that dimension continues to have enormous influence on the future. So even though the Celts believed in reincarnation, they often didn’t communicate their thoughts about those earlier lives as distant or long forgotten. In fact, to have shapeshifted in various births from a raven to a seal to a horse to a stalk of wheat made one a rather wise, well-rounded person and better suited to a place of leadership in society. To such minds as the Celts, Samhain is just one more opportunity to listen to the wisdom of all that has come before and all that will be, and to dance around the bonfire in celebration of the spirits from the past, present, and future that come together in that joyful circle. Could it be that our enjoyment of Halloween is linked not only to this merriment, but also to our longing for a spiritual connection? For although we get to dress up and try on fun or scary “masks”, we also get to entertain the notion for just one night that the spirit world might not be so far away after all—and that the past might actually be present in such a way that comforts and guides us to our futures.
 
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I hope you enjoyed Diane's guest post. We'd love to hear from you! Drop us a note and let us know how you're planning to celebrate Halloween this year. And in case you need a special treat for the "roaming bands of fairies," check out Diane's incredible Enchanted Irish Fairy Cake Recipe. Though... you may not be as willing to share them after you taste the icing!

18 comments:

  1. What a great post. Diane did a wonderful job of explaining the Celtic worldview. It is so different from our own strictly linear, rather black and white view of things.

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    1. Isn't it? I love looking at holidays and traditions from another culture's perspective. :) Thank you for commenting!

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  2. I love the idea that the veil between lives is so thin...I think that's probably true, we are just one small life amid the chaos of the past and the future!
    Also I remember reading about seeing your future intended in a mirror at midnight on Midsummer's eve, or something like that, when I was a young teen...and I scared myself silly trying it to no avail, and since have had an aversion to looking in mirrors after dark, eg: on that quick trip to the bathroom at night when everything's quiet...and you get spooked easily!
    Great post!

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    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Lisa! So... are you still hoping to see your future in a mirror on Midsummer's Eve? I think that would make a fun story!

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  3. Thank you, Pepper and Lisa! I had such fun doing the research for this article because I LOVE delving into the Celtic worldview & the way they embrace so much more of the "spiritual" dimension than we are typically raised to do in modern culture. Whenever I meditate on their philosophy, it makes me feel more well rounded & "whole". Plus, I ADORE Halloween! : )

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    1. Always such a pleasure to have you on my blog, Diane! Thank you so much for writing this amazing article. :)

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  4. I put a Bonfire as my cover picture on FB..I love the ref. used in Dianes Blog. "As a celebration in a joyful circle"..thank you for sharing this with us! I am thinking the Enchanted Irish Fairy Cake might be a delicious treat for those lil goblins that come knocking on my door..or maybe I will just stick to giving them candy and enjoying the cake myself! :)

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    1. I would definitely keep the fairy cakes to yourself! :)

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  5. Great guest Halloween post by Diane. I'm very familiar with celtic lore and the thin veil of Samhain so I really enjoyed reading this. Love that gorgeous photo too!

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    1. Thanks, Chris! I hope you carved a jack-o-lantern to ward off the dark spirits! :)

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  6. Oh, the Celtic worldview does the same for me Diane! It all started when I read Anam Cara by John O'Donohue. A bit dense but terrific read on their views of belonging. You did a lovely job here and I enjoyed reading this post. Nice to find another like-minded soul. :D

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    1. Thanks so much for commenting! Finding like-minded souls is what this whole blogging/tweeting adventure is all about. :)

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  7. Thank you for your comments Karna, Chris & Stacy--I think my love for Halloween has reached the level of obsession! : ) And like you, Stacy, I ADORE John O'Donohue's books and Ana Cara is an all time favorite!! It just makes me feel full inside, the way he describes "soul" friendships. Irish hospitality always warms my heart--perhaps that's why I love Samhain so much : )

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  8. I've heard some of these traditions before, but I've never heard of the Celtic mindset put in those terms before (lake compared to river). Very nice. :)

    Our church does a thing called Trunk or Treat, where members decorate the trunks and hatches of their cars. People who want to participate go from car to car to get candy. There were games as well last year and a costume contest. Looking forward to doing that again this year.

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    1. I love the idea of Trunk or Treat! What a fantastic way to celebrate. :)

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  9. I love that idea! A tailgate party that involved candy would be my idea of heaven : )

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  10. Diane your articles are always so fascinating! Love this!

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Meg. I hope your Halloween was enchanting. :)

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