Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tomorrow is Halloween

There was a time when I really enjoyed going out dressed up in costumes and celebrating but anymore the people I see out are disgusting -- too many drunks! So I'll just think about traditions and know that I still enjoy the day I just celebrate in a much quieter manner.

Celtic Holidays of the Harvest and Renewal Season; of gods, ghosts, faeries and bonfires
Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwine in a number of celebrations from October 31st through November 5th all of which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel in its mystery.

October 31st and November 1st marked the end of the Celtic autumn quarter and the start of the winter quarter of the year and is noted as a quarter-festival.

October 31- November 1st: Hallowe'en or Samhain; also known as Shadowfest and Old Hallowmas.  The Celts called it Samhain, which means Summer's End, according to their ancient two-fold seasons of the year, the light and the dark, summer from Beltane to Samhain and winter from Samhain to Beltane. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, marking the beginning of a whole new cycle, just as the Celtic day began at night. For it was understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Whereas Beltane welcomes in the summer with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of Samhain is November Eve, the night of October 31st known today as Halloween. For the Celts Samhain was not constrained by our modern conception of midnight-to-midnight, for them it started at sundown on October 31st and extended until sundown on November 1st.

Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) is pronounced (depending on where you're from) as sow-in (in Ireland), or sow-een (in Wales), or sav-en (in Scotland), or (inevitably) sam-hane (in the U. S., where most wouldn't know and don't speak Gaelic). Samhain is a corruption of Sainfuin - sain (summer) and fuin (ending), meaning summer's end. This Sabbat can also be known as: The Feast of the Dead (Fleadh nan Mairbh), Last Harvest,  Summer's End, Hallowmas, All Hallow's Eve, Festival of the Dead, All Saint's Day (November 1), Third Festival of Harvest, November Eve, Feast of Apples, Hallows, Shadowfest, Martinmas, Hollantide, All Hallows Tide, and The Great Sabbat.

In Scotland and Ireland Halloween is known as Oiche Shamhna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter's calend, or the first. Samhain hosted a time of family reunion and reaffirming ties of friendship and social bonds. Also, in the agricultural communities, this was the time when the herders led the livestock down from the summer hills to the shelter of stable and byre, and slaughtered those animals that would not survive pasture for the winter after being ritually devoted to the gods.  It was the time of the third and final harvest of the summer. All the harvest must be gathered; barley, oats, wheat, turnips and apples. For come November the faeries would blast every growing plant with their breath blighting any nuts and berries which remained unharvested.  Peat and wood for winter fires was stacked high by the heath to guard against the coming cold and dark. It was a joyous time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come.

Samhain marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. A time of year that was often associated with human death.  This was a period of the year when it was thought the veils between the world that we know and the realm of the dead were in particular thin and easily passed through.  It was a time for divination and honoring the dead. The Druids believed that the Lord of Death gathered all of the spirits of the dead who had been made to enter the bodies of animals as punishment for their sins and redistributed them, on Samhain, the last day of the Celtic year.  On the eve of the Celtic New Year witches and evil spirits were believed to roam the earth playing tricks on humans to mark the season of diminishing light. Spirits could also return on this night to visit their kin and friends during the celebrations should they wish to do so; many customs revolve around the return of spirits. It was a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor, shivering, hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with a familiar fireside.  The Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids to predict the future. For a people entirely dependent on the ever changing, sometimes violent natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

Burial cairns were opened and the village folk lit torches lining the walls and path out so the dead could safely navigate their way out. Candles were set in windows to guide spirits safely to the house (some say as a guide to Summerland); elemental beacons. Plates of food, sweets, and drink were left outside for the souls of the dead, and apples or pears were buried in the Earth to nourish those who had died but chosen not to rise.  For the Celts this was the "Feast of the Dead" and the "Night of the Wild Hunt." Additional places were laid at the table for dead family so that when they came to visit, they would feel at home and not go hungry. People would dress themselves as one of the roaming spirits to avoid demonic persecution from evil or unfriendly ghosts.

Hallowe'en, the poem by Robert Burns provides a vivid description of many of the customs and rites common to Scotland on the bewitching night.  Under pressure from Kirk elders of the Church of Scotland men were punished by the Kirk for dressing up or taking part in some of the divination rituals, and through time these customs were abandoned and left in a watered-down fashion for today's children to carry on when they dress in costumes while demanding "trick-or-treat."

In early Ireland people gathered at the ritual centers of the tribes for Samhain and the principal feast of the year.  The greatest assembly was the "Feast of Tara," focusing on the royal seat of the High King as the heart of the sacred land, the point of conception of the New Year. In every household hearth-fires were extinguished. All awaited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year, not at Tara but at Tlachtga, a hill twelve miles to the northwest.  It marked the burial place of Tlachtga, the daughter of the great Druid Mogh Ruith who once may have been a goddess in her own right during a former earlier age. At the end of the feasts and celebrations fire brands were lit from the great fire of Tara to rekindle the heath fire of the tribes, as at Beltane. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of kindling of new dreams, projects, and hopes for the year to come.

With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year, so the night became popularly known as Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Hollantide.  November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were to be offered to the souls of all who had departed and those whose souls were waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven.  In England small offerings known as soul cakes were traditionally set out for the dead every year on this date. All Souls Day was originally a Roman festival called Ferralia celebrated in February during which families visited graves of relatives and prayers and sacrifices were made on bonfires.  In 933 A.D. the Christian Church changed this celebration date to November the second and renamed it All Souls Day. Alms were given to the poor - but they had to ask for them first.

November 3, Night of Hecate.  The medieval Irish prophet St. Malachy, the "Irish Notradomus" is commemorated on this day. In Celtic tradition this is the day for starting new enterprises and the day the cattle are taken from the hills to the lowlands for winter.

A fire festival known as the Night of Hecate was held one a year at the dark moon in November to honor the goddess Hecate. Modern Witches invoke Hecate for protection and fertility, as she is both protectress of all Witches and an ancient deity associated with fertility. Most of Hecate's worship, and especially on this night, was performed at a three-way crossroad at night. Food was left there as an offering to her. She was known to rule the passages of life and transformation, birth and death. Her animals were the toad, the owl, the dog and the bat.  Some of the common symbols associated with the season today.

November 4, Eve of Guy Fawkes Day. In England every year on this night (the Eve of Guy Fawkes Day), a Pagan festival celebrated in ancient England honoring the Lord of Death took place.  Today bonfires, fireworks, and pranks associated with England's Mischief Night are actually remnants of the old pagan customs.  In Scotland the effigies of the radicals Thomas Paine or Wilkes were burned and not Guy Fawkes, even though the news of the discovery of the Gun-Powder Plot in 1605 was received with rejoicing in the northern lands.

Celtic Bonfire Traditions
As on all major festivals, bonfires were an integral part of the traditional celebrations with spiritual and pagan ritual significance.  On Samhain the original fire was lit only by friction, and was a fire for sacrifices of crops and animals to the sun god as a thanksgiving for a good harvest.  It was called the fire of peace.  Bracken or heather torches were lit from this fire and the families walked in procession, headed by the father, mother and each child in order of age plus any relatives living in the house, three times sunwise around their house carrying the torch in their right hand to protect the house, family, and livestock from the evil eye, illness, or death.  After circling they tossed their torches into a heap and danced around the bonfire.  During the Samhain bonfire celebration, the early Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. Queen Victoria is known to have taken part in this ceremony at Balmoral.

An interesting part of the fire festivities, the significance of which has now been forgotten, involved a fragment of bone. Once the bonfire was burning brightly, a piece of bone was thrown into the fire. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

After the bonfire festivities, girls often carried home a partially burned peat which would be completely extinguished in a tub of "strang bing"(urine) and placed on the door lintel.  The peat would be taken down the next day, broken in two and the color of the peat within would foretell the color of the girl's future husband. Stones were also buried in the ashes of the bonfire. These were marked so they could be easily identified by their owners.  When the fire burned itself out the stones were examined for omens.

The Wild Hunt and the Tree King
This is a combination of two ancient myths; firstly, that of the Oak and the Holly Kings, and secondly that of the Wild Hunt and the Horned God.  The two Kings represent two aspects of the yearly cycle:  the Oak King governs the time of waxing light, and the Holly King that of the waning light (now you know why Oak is a common summer symbol and Holly a Yule symbol). The Oak King is crowned at Beltaine and sacrificed by his dark aspect, the Holly King. The Wild Hunt emerges from Faerie during Samhain to roam the countryside during winter and returns to the mystical realms of Faerie during the Festival of Imbolc for the rest of the year. The Horned God leads the hunt while it is at large during winter, and takes on his aspect of the Forest King while it is in Faerie during summer.

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