There are traditions that transcend cultures. There are traditions that are adopted. There are traditions that get recycled through time.
The ancient Celtic New Year used to fall on November the first. There are ancient Celtic customs related to the harvest and coinciding with this date.
A Celtic celebration called Samhain used to center around the building of a bonfire on the Celtic New Year’s Eve on October 31. The people of a village would extinguish all fires in the village and take fire from the community bonfire to bring a new light from fire into the new year.
With the Celtic or Irish disaspora to America in the middle of the nineteenth century came the tradition of dressing up on Halloween first in religious costumes and later in monster chic.
The Brits, who have been greatly Americanized in these past decades, have found and adopted the “American” (Irish American) custom of Halloween and trick or treat. Many purists over there are disturbed that their traditional harvest festival bonfire thing on November 5 of Guy Fawkes Day has somehow been corrupted by yet another thing American.
Which came first? The religious holidays of All Saints day on November 1st and All Souls day on November 2 or the ancient pagan rituals associated with the Celtic New Year.
As in a grinding merger of cultures, it is hard to tell the truth of any given custom or tradition. In a way, globalization and driving toward a global culture have been ongoing for millennium.
I think we have the Celts first and then the Christian era trying to dominate and own dates on a calendar.
People of the Meso-American cultures of Mexico and Central America have their Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead customs around November 1 and 2. November 1 is for memory of babies and small children – angels – saints. November 2 is for memory of dead adult relatives - souls.
While the symbols of this holiday and its festivities are far from the Victorian or Puritanical customs of mourning, Meso-American culture treats respect and memory of the dead along with the needs and celebrations of the living. Families meet, clean up a relative’s gravesite, have a picnic there, tell family stories or even keep vigil through the night with candles and musica.
The human skull as symbol of death is not a feared symbol but a reminder of death which is part of a cycle of life perspective. The skull in Meso-American culture had been around for centuries before the Spanish and their imposed religion. In many ways I think that western culture and or Christian culture is a culture that greatly fears death and has great self-doubts about its mission statement. The conquered give lip service to their new masters and ancient customs such as Dia de los Muertos and Halloween go on and on.
I have spent the last thirty odd years practicing my own form of pagan respect, not ancestor worship. I light a candle before sunset on Halloween in honor of the Samhain custom and help the New Year in with new light. I also light a candle in my home on November 2 to remember long gone friends and relatives. I also in true Irish tradition and variation thereof have a shot or two of tequila in their honor.
(October 30, 2009)