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Halloween – A Celtic Thing

From the outside the newspaper business looks pretty basic, but it gets complicated fast. The publisher is in Brasil this week, engaged in beach frolic while the often responsible managing editor is out betting against the Broncos. That leaves me here with Freddy Kruegar, The Mummy and an assortment of zombies, vampires and skeletons on a slow news day no less, to do everything. Morbid decorations.

Let’s see here…halitosis….hallelujah…ah yes, Halloween. It seems the perfect subject matter for late October.

While the observation of Halloween in this country carries an array of perceptions and conceptions, it is quite a different experience on the Celtic Isles of Scotland and Ireland where the Hallow E’en celebration or Oiche Samhain originated. To the Pre-Christian Celts, Halloween was a sacred pagan holy day where it was believed that the spirits of the dead could return to their former life and make contact with the spirits of the living. In that ancient society, dominated by the enlightened and mysterious Druids, Halloween was an end of the summer fire feast where the gods were thanked for a rich harvest.

The Manx called it Hoptu Naa and the Welsh called it Calan Gaeaf.  In the Gaeltacht of Western Ireland the people call the celebration Pooky Night, named after the mischievous Puka, a fairy of some regard. Either way it was all pretty much the same big carnival  at a time of the year when the crops were in and magic was said to be most potent. In addition, it represented the mid-point in the Celtic calendar and the entry into the dark phase of the year.

The tradition of costumes originates on these islands too. Where merrymakers would mimic or placate the dead with painted faces and ghoulish attire. They were short on super hero outfits, and pre-fab plastics with accessories, so they had to rely on the magic itself to pull off their disguise. In Ireland and Scotland today many people simply done the white face paint and black robes in an attempt to continue this tradition – the cycle of birth and death in line with the order and harmony of the universe…a far cry from our  commercial Halloween.

The practice of trick or treat (called mumming in Ireland) has been traced to the Celts too, as well as the Romans who invaded England. These conquerors sought to honor their Goddess Pomona, protector of the harvest, whose symbol was the apple, now an inherent part of Halloween celebrations. All of these feasts carried the unifying belief in the powerful symbolism of the moving dead, prayed for by the living

All was well until Pope Boniface IV decided that people were having too much fun. He turned the whole shooting match into a holy day of obligation where the faithful faced mandatory Mass attendance and an assortment of restrictions. The Pope could not accept the idea of a special day for all of the dead so he turned it into a day for just the blessed dead…All Saints Day. If you didn’t go along with the Pope on this one your crops would fail and your livestock would die mysteriously. Blasphemers, pontifically defined, would certainly spend eternity in the Netherworld

The Jack-O-Lantern also came from these isles but was carved from a large turnip since pumpkins were not indigenous to the Irish soil. The legend tells of a greedy gambler, Stingy Jack, who once tricked the devil and was condemned to eternally wander the earth at night. The lantern was placed outside to help him find his way and, possibly to keep him out of the flower beds, off the lawn and from peeking in the windows. The more bountiful pumpkin, used today to create the frightening, toothy faces on the jack-o-lantern, only came into play after early settlers brought it back to Europe (along with the potato) from the Americas.

Although the origins of our Halloween are clearly Celtic, Day of the Dead observances are popular in Mexico, Egypt, Guatemala, and the Caribbean. In Michoacan, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Merida, on the Yucatan children receive little chocolate sculls and families build altars piled high with food and the things the deceased loved one enjoyed in life. The altars are then decorated with marigolds to honor the dead. Pan de muertos (Bread of the dead) is baked to accentuate the feasting.

In Chichicastenango, Guatemala a massive procession begins at one end of town and strolls to the other. Along with the Jesus and Mary statues the alternative Creole deity, Rahsheeman, rides elevated through the streets. Sugar cane liquor is everywhere. Cannons are fired and bedlam is not far off. Up father north, at haunting Nebaj, the naturales engage in inebriated horse races which are quite a sight to behold (from the sidelines with a plate of Hilachas).

In Cariacou, Grenada the party starts in the evening at the local boneyard where graves are turned into bars and everyone toasts dead relatives throughout the night. Fortune telling takes second fiddle to the consumption of under-de-counta (under the counter) a fortified (99% proof) rum from Trinidad fermented with spices and reputed aphrodisiacs. Now these folks really know how to throw a party. Chevere Boo, Babies !