Today is Hallowmas, also known as All Hallows’ Day, All Saints’ Day, Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints. It is a day to honor all Christian saints, both known and unknown, but honestly it mostly makes me think of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
This feast day begins at Vespers (sunset prayer service) on the evening of 31 October, which is All Hallows’ Eve. Halloween is the derivative of Hallows Evening, the evening before Hallows Day. (No, I don’t know why Christmas Eve didn’t become Christeen; maybe because it is still technically Advent and we’re all decorating too early.) On Halloween you prepare for the Feast of All Hallows by lighting bonfires and making lanterns out of gourds and (thanks to American cultural imperialism) trick or treating for candy.
In Britain, Allhallowtide had some very obvious and lingering connections to the earlier pre-Christian festival of Samhain. For the pre-Christians, Samhain marked the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, a time when all the crops were in and it was time to hunker down and miss the sunshine for a few months.
For both the Pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon/Celts and the Christian British, the festival Samhain/Allhallowtide was what anthropologists call a liminal time – a time when things were quite as well defined, and when boundaries blur. This meant that the “veil” between this world and the Otherworld or purgatory was thinned, and there was potential overlap between the two realities. This meant that the spirits of the dead (or any other supernatural beasties) could cross over more easily into our world.
Bonfires were lit and masks were worn to scare away any nasty-minded spirits or uncivil boggles. Fire, as a general thing, was life-giving and terrifying for evil spirits, so fire was a great things to have going on during these days. People would hollow out turnips (neeps) and carve scary faces on them and put candles in them as the original jack-o-lanterns, then carry them about to frighten off any ill-wishing baddies in the night.
In the early Tudor era Allhallowtide was still celebrated much the same way it had been in Medieval times. It had not yet been marked down as too “Papist” or too pagan to be allowed. Kings would wear purple, and the rest of the court would wear black, on these three days as a sign of mourning for the departed. There would be feasting, drinking, pageants, plays, games, and dancing to go with the bonfires in every community, and church bells would be rung to both honor the dead and to scare away the evil spirits.
Moreover, the graveyards would be tended to and lit candles would be placed on the headstones. Sometimes even a little food would be left on the grave of a loved one, so the dear departed could be included in the feasting.
The Tudors still participated in “souling”, and the giving out of “soul-cakes”, as well:
Bands of ‘soulers’ went from house to house singing ancient ‘souling’ rhymes; and small loaves, quickbreads or cakes were handed out to them to be eaten hot while saying a prayer for the departed. Even after the Reformation, when prayers were officially no longer thought necessary to ease the passage of souls to Heaven, the idea that the giving and receiving of food by the living somehow benefited or pleased the dead persisted, for ‘souling’ continued, although the souling rhymes became straight begging-songs.
Obviously, this tradition is where trick-or-treating came from, except now the visitors are children who get candy instead of bread or cakes.
Today is also remembered throughout the Latin and Catholic world as The Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), which has been elevated to an art from in Mexico in particular, probably because it was grafted onto a pre-existing Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. Basically, it is celebrated in much the same way as Hallowmas would have been in Medieval Europe, with food, games, drinking, plays, and attendance of the gravesites, but with awesome Mexican folk art.
Like Hallowmas, the Christian festival of Día de Muertos has a lot of pre-Christian elements. The goddess Mictecacihuatl has been transformed into La Calavera Catrina, candies shaped like skulls are ubiquitous, and the graves are covered in marigold flowers (cempasúchil) that the Aztecs used. People also dress up as calaveras (dead bodies or skeletons) as they would have before the Spanish invaded.
In our house, we don’t really celebrate Hallowmas; we just take down most of the Halloween decorations. Nevertheless, we do make a point of remembering those loved ones who have passed on with our children. If the boundaries are indeed thinned today, then those who have passed on will have the comfort of knowing they are still loved.
Because they are.