Ireland is a land of music, myth and mystery. Thousands of years ago, Halloween was a Celtic New Year celebration as ancient peoples honored the total dependence of life on light and the power of the sun. The end of what we call October marked the end of the old year’s period of growth as the harvest had been gathered in. The New Year started in cold, darkness and death. As light shifted and shadows lengthened, people sensed it was a liminal, or boundary time when multiple realities coexisted and intersected. The Celtic Festival of Samhain celebrated the shared space and time of the living and the dead and in recognition of the dying of the light all fires were extinguished until in a Fire Festival a huge new fire was lit in celebration of the New Year.
In the fourth century CE Christians adopted this ancient, powerful fire festival repurposing it in what we know as Halloween, a sanctified time to remember the dead followed immediately by All Saint’s Day. Irish immigrants brought their form of the celebration to the New World, though the Irish carved turnips instead of pumpkins. It is a time of trickery, of treats, disguise, possibility and uncertainty, when the veil between the seen and unseen, the spirit and physical worlds is permeable and thin: time is not linear and life and death are held together.
Once when Turning Point was researching a pilgrimage to Ireland, Rev. Kerry Holder Joffrion and I went to Inis Mor on the Arran Islands to meet Fr. Dara Malloy, a Celtic monk and priest, who regaled us with Irish wisdom and folk lore. Fr. Dara told us that on Halloween in observance of liminal time, if he should go to the pub he would go silently and the bartender would not overtly recognize him, but also in silence slide his usual order across the bar in recognition that on Halloween appearances can be deceptive!
Today, in the US many are fearful of letting children fully experience Halloween. Instead, with every good will, churches and civic organizations arrange Trunk or Treat events where children can safely gather in a parking lot going from car to car to collect their haul of candy. Unfortunately, this practice, well intended as it is, does not engage the profound spirit of the time, or substitute for feeling the frisson of fear while flitting through shadows to neighbor houses where fiery pumpkins on front porches glow a welcome and of learning that things are not always what they seem to be. Halloween has an intrinsically unstable ‘edge’ deconstructing reality and time as we understand them holding together life and death dark and light.
In the ‘spirit’ of the Festival, I leave this unsigned: Happy Halloween!