Thoughts Concerning Halloween, Ancient and Modern

By Glenda | October 27, 2014

Thoughts Concerning Halloween, Ancient and Modern

This week many of us in our culture will celebrate Halloween with pumpkin carving, gift giving, trick or treating, and many other joyous ceremonies.  When we do so, we will be only the latest among many thousands of years of people who have marked this occasion, not necessarily in the same way, but certainly with intentional ceremony.

Halloween is a word derived from the Christian traditional calendar, being Hallows Evening (the “hallowed” referring to the holy or blessed dead souls).  On this occasion the church remembers in prayer and ceremony the spirits of the dead.

But this ceremonial occasion goes back much earlier than the formation of the Christian church.

There is evidence that as long ago as 150,000 BC, human beings honored their dead with ceremony, and the ancient burial sites indicate a belief in the survival of the “spirit” of the dead in some manner.

Further, the belief among early peoples that the spirit of the dead relatives or ancestors are still related to the lives of the living in a meaningful way has resulted in all sorts of ceremonies—preservation and ornamentation of skulls, ceremonies of propitiation or exorcism, rituals of aiding the spirits of the deceased to move forward into new life, etc.  These are probably the oldest religious ceremonies known to the human race.

Also common was the belief that, in the time of the year when the vegetation appears to be dying back as autumn comes on, as the cold of winter approaches, and as all the ancient people began to come together for mutual support and security during the winter months, the “ghost” of the dead also would return to the family hearth.

So, in the course of time, the ceremony of the “first new fire” of the season was solemnized.  That particular night, then, became the ceremonial time for remembering the dead.  The Christian church simply incorporated this ancient rite into its calendar of saint’s days.

And so, from this honoring of the dead, we derive the “ghosts” and “goblins” of Halloween costumes—a debased remnant of the ancient honoring of the departed once a year.

In the olden days, and in certain places today, the occasion of the building of the first fire and welcoming home the spirits of the ancestors was not necessarily a “spooky” experience, but rather could be a joyful time of reconciliation with the fact of death and the uniting of all energy or “spirit” in meaningful kinship.  So it is appropriate, perhaps, that the children enjoy the holiday, and by wearing the costumes, take some of the fear out of the idea of death.

But death has always held a necessary awe for us.  In the “ghost stories” and teaching stories for many generations, the threat of being captured or punished somehow by an unsettled “spirit” led to such things as the Baba Yaga of children’s stories, as well as to the many other personifications of the dead who are not at peace.

So other ceremonies have been held, as I said, to aid the departed in certain ways.

The fact that “witch” costumes are worn on Halloween reminds us of the thousands and thousands of women (and some men) who were killed because they were accused so randomly and tragically of “witchcraft” in a time when narrow-minded ignorance often shaped the Christian church’s doctrine concerning such things.  I personally have chosen to remember on Halloween those many burned and tortured “witches,” praying not only for their souls, but also for an always-needed opening of the minds and hearts of our own people that will allow us to cease to demonize any group, either with a “witchy” title or by harming them in tragic ways.

These Halloween rituals can always involve remembrance of our personal family linage, those on whose shoulders we stand, those who went before us.  In our modern global and digital world, we can all easily find out about our genealogy, and many of us are being blessed by learning more and more about ourselves and our history in this way.

Through the years, as my children were growing up, we created ceremony on Halloween, waiting, no matter how cold it got, until that occasion to build, ritually, the first fire of the season in our fireplace (that it often gets cold a couple of weeks before then and we must go around in sweaters adds to the meaningfulness of the ritual).

And on Halloween, after the children’s secular trick or treating, we would have our family ceremony honoring our ancestors and relatives who had died.  We set out in the living room some of the items that had belonged to any of our deceased relatives, along with photographs of them.  We got out the family tree and studied it, telling stories.  This helped us all to feel deeply rooted in a history that is meaningful and powerful.  Each of my daughters was named, for example, for an ancestor, and the stories my girls learned about their namesakes added to their sense of their own depth and possibilities.

Certainly we know that in some ways our ancestors have by now dissolved back into the void and into the earth, but we also know that their “spirits” do return, inside of us, as we remember them, and my family has been helped by this ceremony to know who we are and from whom we have come.

And we usually concluded our ceremonial time by remembering that our ancestors actually go all the way back, back to the early homo sapiens who were ancestors of all humans, and so we remember that we are related to everyone, we are all related in that essential way.

And we always remark in closing that we go back even farther, to the mammals, to the earth itself, to the atmosphere, to the Super Nova star that exploded—in short, we remember that we are part of the great Family of Life Itself, that we belong here, that we are not alone and never can be.

May your own Halloween be Hallowed and Holy.  May you find deeper connection to your family’s roots and to the concept of a loving concern for all the generations, both those who came before and those to come after you.  I consider you part of my family, and I send you greetings in this sacred season.


Glenda Taylor

Earthsprings, 2014

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