Halloween Before Hollywood

The holidays’ connection to nature

Imagine back before the days of yore- before the written word.

Two men sat beside the fire in the evening. The older one – Will – says, “Tom, does it seem like the days are getting shorter?” Tom, in reply says, “Yes Will, it does. And it seems like the nights are getting longer too. I wonder why that is? Let’s ask Jack. He knows stuff.” About that time Jack, dressed in animal skins and wearing antlers on his head and carrying a stick with all kinds of stuff tied to it, steps out of the darkness into the light of the fire circle and says cryptically and in a somber voice, “The sky tells me… Winter is coming.”

Let’s cut to the chase: whether you call it Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Samhain, or some other variant, the celebration of October 31 has its roots in the natural world and the change of seasons, as experienced in the northern hemisphere. Peoples from temperate latitudes and northward put more emphasis on reckoning the seasons than subtropical and tropical peoples because the difference in day length and temperature through the year is so much more pronounced as you move farther away from the equator. If we take the latitude of Dublin (which is abt the same as Amsterdam, Berlin & Warsaw- about 53 deg N) as an example reference point, we can see the dramatic difference between the day length at the summer solstice (17 hours) and the day length at the winter solstice (7 hrs 30 min). By October 31, the day length is about 9 hrs and 35 mins and getting shorter by approx. 4 minutes/day. It’s easily apparent that darkness is taking over.

At this point I could launch into an explanation of solar calendar development and how to calculate our position on the wheel of the year by watching the sun and counting days, but hey, this ain’t no thesis.  After the solstices and equinoxes were marked, it was an easy matter to break it down further and figure out the cross-quarter days, which are the halfway points between the equinoxes and the solstices. The cross-quarter days were given special significance and became today’s Groundhog Day/Imbolc, May Day/Beltane, Lammas/Lughnasa and Halloween/Samhain. These aren’t always strictly adhered to on the actual cross-quarter day, but they’re close enough that we can recognize the association.

In the Celtic world, a lunar calendar was in use. Winter, and the new year, began on the full moon closest to the cross-quarter day between the Autumn Equinox and the winter solstice, and the day began at sundown. Samhain, pronounced “Sah-win”, was the beginning of winter.

“Winter?”, said Tom apprehensively. Tom was Will and Jack’s middle brother. He was a farmer. He continued, “I remember Winter. It was cold. It was dark. I couldn’t grow any crops and food got low. People died. Weird stuff happened. Didn’t we just have winter about 6 moons ago? What should we do?”.

Will was a hunter, but lately he had started keeping animals in pens closer to the hut too. “Oh yeah. Winter sucks. It’s hard to hunt in the snow. If Tom can’t grow anything, how am I going to feed the beasts?”

Jack, the youngest brother, had somehow changed his clothes. Now he was wearing some kind of green robe and carrying a simple oak staff. He wasn’t much of a hunter or a farmer, but as stated previously, he knew stuff and could talk to all the animals and trees. “OK, you guys are going to have to listen carefully…”

“Tom, you need to store as much food as you can for the people. Send everybody out to the woods and fields to gather in as much as they can, and put it up in the barn and in the cellar before winter. Figure out a way to keep it secure because the Good People might try to steal it. It’s going to have to last all winter.”, said Jack.

“Will, you need to figure out how many animals you can keep. We’ll need a lot of the crops for people so you’re going to have to sacrifice some of the beasts because we won’t be able to feed them all winter. Make sure to ask their permission and thank them for their sacrifice before you kill them, so their spirits won’t linger. There’s going to be blood… Lots of blood. You’ll probably be covered in it. And bones. Save the bones and we can have a big bone-fire at the full moon.”

“And lastly, and this is the most important part, at the start of winter our ancestors’ spirits, and especially any of the community that have died in the past 12 moons will come back looking for food and comfort. We have to offer them hospitality, even if they’re all ghostly and gross, disgusting, half-rotted corpses with their heads half cut off. If we don’t offer them treats and make them welcome, they might play tricks on us. Some of the neighboring kids might try to sneak in for a hand-out too, but it might be pretty hard to tell if they’re dead or not. Just be nice to all of them, and hopefully, they’ll go away and leave us alone.”

Elizabeth, sister of the boys, was kind of a mystery. She talked to crows. She also knew stuff somehow and was especially good at combining things in her big kettle to make other things. Just about then she appeared as a black silhouette at the door, leaning on her broom and called out to the darkness from the hut, “Brothers, come on in now. I made Beer!” As she tuned back inside she mumbled, “Getting’ cold out here.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *