Friday, 31 October 2014

It's Not Just About Pumpkins

Hallowe'en has become a gruesome festival of fright, blatantly commercialised, and meaning nothing any more. People who do not believe in any soul or spiritual dimension revel in fake superstition, dressing up as witches and ghouls in a rather childish way, void of significance. This is followed by a sad heap of thrown-away pumpkins that no-one can be bothered to cook. What a waste.

That is a pity because both the Christian Hallowe'en and its forerunner, the pagan festival of Samhain, are important and valuable. The Christian feast of All Souls (All Hallows) is when we pray for all the departed, visit family graves and honour the memory of our forebears. Schubert's beautiful song All Souls, with words by Johann Jacobi, sums up the mood of solemn meditation.

May all souls rest in peace!
Their anxious torment over
And their sweet dreams too,
Those weary of life, or those who,
       Barely born, departed from this world,
Peace be on all their souls.

Without doubt the Christian festival took its cue from surviving pagan celebrations known in the Celtic world as Samhain, Calan Gaeaf, Kalan Gway or Kalan Goany. The onset of winter, the death of the year, made people mindful of death and it was believed that the souls of the dead revisited our world, not to scare or harm us, but to greet and protect us. In particular, the souls of our ancestors might choose this time of year to make a visit back to the family home. In Corsica and Sardinia it was customary until the early 20th century, to take symbolic gifts of food to family graves, and in many parts of Europe people would set out a meal on the kitchen table before going to bed, to welcome the returning family member. 
Lanterns were an important part of this. Made out of large turnips or hollow gourds, with a small candle inside, they were left burning in a window or an alcove all night, to guide the spirits to your house through the darkness. 
For Christian or pagan, Hallowe'en was a time when people felt the presence of the departed and the continuity of life, each generation passing the torch to the next. Even if you don't literally believe in the survival of a spirit as such, this can still be meaningful, as people we have lost do, in a sense, survive by leaving a part of themselves inside us. At All Hallows tide we can be mindful of that and seem to sense their presence again.
In Christian tradition, beggars would go from door to door offering to pray for the souls of your family in return for a cake, known as a "soul-cake". This eventually became travestied in the American custom of "trick or treat", which is a pity. 
So my Hallowe'en will be a comforting time, when I may carve a face on my largest pumpkin, but I certainly won't throw it away afterwards. It will be turned into pie and soup. I will be leaving lanterns outside at night, and I may even make some "soul-cakes" but will only bestow one on a beggar who can say the entire litany for the dead in Latin.

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