The True Halloween History: Honoring Our Ancestors
Most of us think of October 31 as Halloween, a time to dress up in costumes and make merry. But Halloween history tells of so much more.
In Celtic times, it was a time to honor those who have gone before us. The masked figures represent the spirits of the dead: our ancestors.
A Wee Bit of Celtic Halloween History
The ancient Celts, going back 4,500 years, divided each year into the dark half and the light half. The end of the light half was marked by Samhain [pron. Sow-ihn], a time when they were stockpiling food for the winter and giving thanks to the Sun God.
It is also a time of year when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest – an appropriate time to invite the souls of the dead to come back for a visit. Candles kept in the window guide the souls back home and a place is set at the table for them.
In the 8th Century, Pope Gregory wanted to Christianize Samhain and, because Celtic days started at sunset, he declared that when the sun set on October 31, the Christian celebration of All Saint’s Day would begin.
November 1 literally praised All Hallowed Saints, and became known as All Hallows. The day before that became All Hallow’s Eve, and eventually “Halloween.”
All Souls’ Day, November 2, is a Roman Catholic Holiday of remembrance for friends and loved ones who have left for the next life. Its roots are in Samhain, based on the belief that the souls of the dead would return for a meal with the family. So what originated as the ancient celebration of Samhain is now three separate days of celebration!
This is not about ghosts, but underlies the view of most indigenous cultures that our ancestors are just a prayer away, a thought away, always ready to assist us from the other side. Something like guardian angels!
A different view of death[quote]“Death is just the middle of a long life.” Celtic teaching[/quote]
In modern cultures we view death as something to fear, but our Celtic ancestors viewed life as a never-ending spiral of birth, death and rebirth.
Their view was that after death, the soul journeyed to the Summerlands beyond the western sea, where the grass was always green and there was an abundance of food. Feasting, hunting, music, love and sporting events went on forever.
If anyone was killed one day, they sprang back to life the next. This is why men and women of noble rank in the Iron Age were buried with everything they were likely to need in the afterlife.
It was not uncommon for a man to lend money and agree to receive repayment in the next lifetime!
All Soul’s Day
On All Soul’s Day, traditional families in Ireland lit a candle in the window to guide the souls of the dead back to their old homes. The veil between the worlds was thin on that night and spirits walking the land found the same hospitality the Irish always showed the living. The table was laid with the best linen and special food was left out for them to enjoy.
Traditional Irish families would also keep a “room to the West” [sometimes just an alcove or nook] where they placed objects that reminded them of their departed ones. At sunset the family solemnly turned toward the setting sun and spent time in loving remembrance of them.
A candle was lit for each soul and the whole family sat down to a feast in their honor.
A Celtic ceremony to honor those who have gone before us
Here is a way to honor those who have passed in the last year, or ever [adapted from Mara Freeman’s Kindling the Celtic Spirit]:
Choose a western alcove, shelf or windowsill to be used as a shrine and cover it with purple or black cloth.
- Place mementos or photos of loved ones who have died in the past year, along with some leaves and flowers. You could even include famous people – anyone you want to honor and remember.
- Set a candle by each memento and place a large candle in the center, symbolizing the one light that unites us all.
- At dusk, light the candles, beginning with the central one, and sit or stand facing the shrine, and think of each person in turn. Feel free to cry, one of the most healing emotions.
- If you are in a group, share stories, songs or words of inspiration. Each can also share short tributes to the ones who have passed on.
- Share a special feast, celebrating the great circle of life, death and renewal. Set aside a special plate for the departed ones before you go to bed.
Any ritual we do to honor and remember our loved ones will bring comfort and healing. And it’s never too late to do so.[quote]“You may not remember, but let me tell you this: someone, in some future time, will think of us.” Sappho, 7th Centry B.C. poet, composer, musician, teacher, priestess of Aphrodite.[/quote]
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Molly Larkin is the co-author of the international best-seller “The Wind Is My Mother; The Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman” and other books on health. She is passionate about helping people live life to their fullest potential through her classes, healing practice and blog at www.MollyLarkin.com