Posted by: Sally Ingraham | October 28, 2008

Samhain Night is Upon Us

Just now, as I walked to the library through meandering fog, eating a handful of candy corn, I found myself heaving a sigh of delicious, shivery pleasure. The Holy Redeemer Church at the top of Ledgelawn Ave. was looming against a wall of grey mist, it’s outlines crisp and yet somehow lacking definition, as though I was peering through a splinter of time into a different place.

jack-o-lanternJust the sort of abstract curves of imagination that I like to indulge in at this time of year! I did not grow up celebrating Halloween, and this may be the first year that I have actually made a costume and intend to appear in public in it (ahhh!!). However, there has always been something about this time of year that stirs the sleeping superstitions within me.

Halloween is of course a very old holiday, finding it’s origins in harvest and fire festivals that have taken place in Ireland since forever. Oíche Shamhna (pron: ee-hah how-nah), literally “Samhain Night” is the original name of the celebration. While feasting and bonfires and the slaughtering of animals for winter food were the activities of the day, keeping the spirits of the underworld at bay was heavily occupying the Celtic man’s mind.

They believed that on this night, at the apex between summer and winter, the boundary between the living and the dead became blurred, and the ghosts of the dead could come back to earth and cause havoc. Hence the costumes and jack-o-lanterns. Costumes to help everyone blend in with the spirits of the night, and carved pumpkins to scare them away! The Druids also believed that with so many otherworldly things wandering around the time was ripe for foreseeing the future. After a night of feasting and fortune telling the people felt more prepared to face the long dark winter.

MartyrsIt is interesting to me how many of these old celebrations still exist in one form or another, and how many of them have been saddled with Christian connotations. All Saint’s Day was tagged onto this one by Pope Boniface IV in the seventh century. He decided if everyone was so gung-ho about celebrating dead people they might as well be celebrating saints and martyrs.

Interestingly enough, the All Saint’s Day version was the one I was allowed to celebrate, although I never found the flayed, beheaded, and burned to a crisp saints clutching crucifixes any less spooky than vampires, malignant ghosts, and headless horsemen.

All in all Halloween in any form isn’t necessarily a NICE holiday. At best it is a time to bid farewell to warmth and color, and welcome in cold and darkness with a little fun and food and mischief to help lightened the bitterness of winter. There certainly is something in the air that makes spooks – various and sundry – seem a more plausible explanation for the fogs and winds that naturally come at this time of year. Perhaps that is learned behavior, or perhaps even now in spite of all our science and religion that claims otherwise, a crack between the worlds does open up for one night and they all come visiting – ghosts, martyrs, and your mother-in-law.

As for me, I take it all with a pinch of salt (which should protect me from evil spirits!) and I will venture out on the 31st with my friends for an evening of fun and dancing, dressed as the world’s largest piece of popcorn. That should fittingly disguise me from anything that goes bump in the night!


  1. […] I love the autumn, and especially All Hallows Eve. The crispness that enters the air, the changing light, the riot of the fall foliage here in New […]

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