Not deferential enough: Summer's end

Posted Tuesday, October 29, 2013 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Summer's end

by Gina Hamilton

Thursday marks Halloween, All Hallows' Eve, the day before the Feast of All Saints.

Halloween is actually the celebration of a much older tradition, however, a final celebration of the end of summer, the last harvest home, the death of one year just before the second is born.

This festival is called Samhain, pronounced sow-en, "summer's end".  Ancient people believed that at Samhain, the veil between the world of the living and the dead was at its thinnest.  So in addition to the harvest festival, there was also an ancestor festival.  People laid out plates for the newly departed and invited them, the beloved dead, to join the feast. 

Death wasn't something to be feared; it was just a fact of life.  The dead weren't all that far away.  The beacon to call them home was a carved out turnip, later a pumpkin, with a flame inside, and a symbol or face carved on it to let the light shine out.

At the end of the feast, when it was time for the worlds to separate again for another year, the lanterns were placed on a bonfire, along with a corn dolly, sent to the gods in thanks for another successful harvest, with detritus from the fields - corn stalks, wheat chaff, spoiled fruit. 

There are festivals around the world celebrating the relationship between the living and the dead worlds around this time of year.  Dia de Los Muertos, in Mexico, on the second of November, is one of the most charming, with people picnicking at graves, cleaning off headstones, planting spring bulbs, and chatting with the beloved dead as easily as you and I might chat to a luncheon companion. 

In China, the Double Ninth Festival occurs in late October to early November.  Like the Dia de Los Muertos, it's an ancestor festival associated with grave tending, and the bringing of food and incense offerings. 

In England, a festival on the fifth of November commemorates the failed plot to blow up the Parliament, but also recalls the ritual burning of John Barleycorn, whose origins date back to the corn dollies of the ancient Samhain festivals.

Most early cultures have a healthy relationship with the beloved dead. 

But of course, some people don't, and just couldn't leave well enough alone.

Christian missionaries had tried for ages to wipe out the ancient cults of the dead, and failed, for the most part.  In 601, Pope Gregory issued a new edict - if the local people worshipped something odd, just consecrate it to Christ and leave it be.  This single encyclical had the effect of co-mingling most Christian holidays with their pagan forebears - from Christmas trees at Yule to colored eggs at Easter, to jack o'lanterns at All Hallows' Eve.

But because the Samhain dead were so decidedly pagan, and not in heaven where the Christians would have them be, they had to become evil.

So the happy festival of the beloved dead had to become a fearful night of demons and unquiet souls, which would be put to rest by the Saints on their feast day that would follow the last night of October.  That didn't satisfy the Samhain people, however, so a second feast ... one that remembered all the dead ... was born on the second of November, the Feast of All Souls.  That ritual was a little more like the Samhain festival of the beloved dead, while still being "Christian" enough to pass.  Most of the modern Halloween rituals had their origins in Feast of All Souls.

Because the dead were now a thing to be feared, people dressed up in costumes that recalled demons, skeletons, and devils, and banged drums to frighten the dead back to their graves. These folk were called mummers, and their costumes were eventually passed on to small children, who added unscary things - angels, animals, faeries, and so on - to the list of things that would be worn on the Feast of All Souls.

In England, small cakes called soul cakes were collected by the children who would go door to door, sing a song for the householder and the family, and bestow a blessing. 

Soul cake, soul cake, please, good missus, a soul cake.

An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry

Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus a soul cake

One for Peter, two for Paul, and three for Him who made us all.

Each soul cake was the equivalent of a prayer to get a beloved dead relative out of purgatory and into heaven, so it was a nearly universal custom.  Cider, donuts, and apples were often provided for the costumed children.  Souling easily morphed into trick or treating, a tradition that continues to this day.

This year, light a candle for your beloved dead.  Welcome them home, and lay a plate for them.  If nothing else, you'll keep them alive in your heart for another year.

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