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SPOTLIGHT:The True History of Halloween

Saturday, October 31, 2015




A True History of Halloween

‘I know it’s a bit American,’ a mother apologised to me yesterday, when inviting my daughter to a Halloween party. 

‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘Halloween is older than America, or its culture anyway. It’s even older than Christianity.’

‘Really?’ she asked. 

‘Yes, Halloween is at least 2,000 years old,’ I told her. ‘It has its roots in a pre-Christian Celtic festival. And since most of us here have Celtic blood, it’s entirely appropriate for us to celebrate it.’

‘I never knew that,’ she said. ‘You should write something about it.’

So, never one to refuse an opportunity to write about a subject I find fascinating, here is my True History of Halloween:


Halloween was once one of the two most important religious rites of the Celtic calender (the other being six months later, on May Day). 



Long before Christianity reached the shores of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic people who lived there used to hold a festival celebrating the end of the year. Their New Year was November 1, and this festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-un).
 
Samhain means ‘summer’s end’, and the festival signalled the end of the harvest season, and the turning of the year towards the long, cold, darkness of winter. 

For the Celtics, Samhain was one of the two hinges of the year, a time when the door between the worlds was opened. Since it was also a time when the world began turning towards darkness, the fields lay fallow, and the small, weak and old might die, Samhain is also a celebration of death and the dark mysteries. 

For many, it was thought to be a time to communicate with the dead, or with the gods. For others, it was a time to protect oneself against the mischief and malice of the unrestful dead, or the fairy creatures of the Otherworld. People used to leave out offerings of food and drink to appease any who were roaming the countryside. Anyone who fed the fairies would be rewarded, and anyone who failed to do so would be punished. 

People also used to carve fearsome faces into turnips to scare away malevolent spirits (carved pumpkins are a much later tradition, and, yes, come from America). People used to dress up, and play tricks, and beat pots and pans, all in an attempt to confuse and frighten the dead away.



Another key tradition was the lighting of sacred bonfires to honour the Celtic gods. Everyone would extinguish their own fire, and relight it from the one lit on the nearest hill or in the village square. Afterwards, the ashes of the fire would be sprinkled on the winter fields, blessing them and fertilising them for the next year. 

As Christianity began to spread into the Celtic lands, the Roman Catholic Church took over the old festivals and incorporated them into their own calendars. In 835 A.D., Pope Gregory IV re-named Samhain ‘All Saints’ Day’. All Saints Day was also known as Hallowmas, or All Hallows Eve, which gradually became pronounced Halloween. 

As the old pagan rituals persisted, despite all the attempts of the priests, the church decided to simply adopt them as Catholic rites. It became usual to light candles for the dead, for example, instead of sacred bonfires.



Instead of leaving out food for the fairies, the church set up a tradition whereby poor would ‘go a-souling’, walking from door to door asking for food and, in return, praying for the souls of the giver’s dead relatives. It was widely believed at the time that the souls of the dead would wait in purgatory till enough people had prayed for their souls. The poor would be given ‘soul cakes’ to eat, sometimes in return for a performance or song. As time went on, it became the practise for poor children to ‘go a-souling’, and so the ‘trick-and-treat’ tradition was born. 

Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1593), when a man is accused of “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.” Puling means to whimper or whine. 

In the 1500s, the Reformation brought in the Protestant religions, many of which did not allow for any saints or religious celebrations. Even Christmas and Easter were not permitted.



However, the old practices persisted, simply finding new names and new forms. Since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in early November, 1606, Samhain became known as Guy Fawkes Day, with bonfires, dressing up, parades, and other celebrations. Children would to go from door to door, asking for a ‘penny for Guy’, so they could make an effigy to burn on the bonfire. 

In the New World, the colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day for a while, but as the colonies became the United States of America, Guy Fawkes Day fell by the wayside. Halloween was certainly not a popular festival day, as most of the early settlers were Protestant and so disapproved of what was clearly seen as a remnant of pagan culture. 

By the mid 1800s, however, many Irish Catholics fled the potato famine in Ireland by immigrating to the USA. They brought with them their old Halloween traditions, which caught the imagination of the public. Halloween is now one of the most popular festivals in the USA and, increasingly, the Western world. 

In Australia, we should properly celebrate Samhain on the 1st May and May Day on 31st October, as our seasons are back to front … but the festivities are much the same – the lighting of candles and bonfires, the feasting and playing, the thinking on the meaning of the turning of the seasons.

So Happy Halloween, everyone … and here’s a beautiful old Irish Samhain poem to help you get in the mood:

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, Summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone,
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds.
Season of ice – these are my tidings.


Translated by Caitlin Matthews

And for those of you who like to celebrate the old ways, here is a beautiful Samhain prayer:




This is a vintage post which I have resurrected for your reading pleasure - it was first posted in 2011!

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

SPOTLIGHT: Two Selkie Tales from Scotland

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Today is Launch Day for my new picture book, TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND, gorgeously illustrated by Fiona McDonald.

To celebrate, I’m devoting the blog to Selkie and other fairy tales for the next few days. Enjoy!



The Story Behind the Story of TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND ...

My grandmother’s grandmother was Scottish. 

Her name was Ellen Mackenzie and she grew up on the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland. Her home was edged on all sides by the waters of rivers and firths leading out to the sea. 


Ellen’s mother was called Margaret McPhee, and as everyone in Scotland knows, the McPhee clan was descended from Selkies. The name McPhee is derived from an older version of the name MacDuffie, which comes from the Gaelic term MacDubhSithe, meaning ‘son of the dark fairy’. Family legend says that the first McPhee took a Selkie as a bride! 

Ellen emigrated to Australia in the 1850s and, apart from some books and clothes and a sprig of heather, she brought a head stuffed full of old tales. She told these stories to her daughter Jinny, who told them to her daughters, Clarice, Gwen and Marjory (nicknamed Joy), and they – my great-aunts and grandmother - told them to me. 

I always loved the tales of selkies, who were seals in the water and humans upon the land. It seemed the best of both worlds. People drowned if they sank beneath the waves, and mermaids could only flop about helplessly on land. Selkies, however, could plunge through the fathomless deeps, and then shed their sealskin and run and dance on the shore. I loved wondering if I had Selkie blood in me, and if one day I’d find the way to transform into a seal. 

Like many Scottish fairy tales, ‘The Selkie Bride’ is full of love and loss, magic and mystery. A Selkie woman is seen dancing on the shore. A man steals her sealskin and hides it from her and so she is trapped in human form. 



Though the Selkie bride pines for the sea and her own kind, the man marries her and they have children. Eventually, the Selkie bride finds her sealskin – often with the help of one for her children – and so she returns to the sea, leaving her human family bereft. In many tales, her descendants are seers and singers, poets and players. Often they have webbed hands and feet, or may have been born with a caul of skin over their heads. If so, their families hide or destroy their caul so that they will not run away to the sea. I always loved that story, and wished that I had been born with Selkie blood so that I could swim through the waves with all the sleek grace of a seal, but still dance in the moonlight whenever I wanted. 



A lesser known tale is ‘The Seal-Hunter and the Selkie’. A man who makes his living by slaughtering seals finds himself transformed into a Selkie for a night, and charged with the task of saving the life of one he has injured. He is overcome by remorse and promises to never kill a seal again. This was always one of my favourite tales, for I’ve never liked the idea of killing such beautiful creatures. It was also, I thought, more joyful and hopeful than many of the Selkie tales, which are often tragic, and so was a bright counterpoint to the melancholy feel of ‘The Selkie Bride’. 


I loved retelling these two old tales, and tried to recapture some of the lilt of my grandmother and great-aunts’ voices in the story’s cadences and rhythm.  They are stories I will love to tell aloud.

All the illustrations above are by Fiona McDonald for the book - here's the link to her blog.

Want more Selkies? Check out this blog I wrote last year ...

THE PAGAN ROOTS OF EASTER

Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter is, at heart, a pagan festival. Easter’s roots go far back into our history, predating Christianity by thousands of years.

Its key symbols – the egg, the bunny, even the hot cross bun – all have their origins in ancient, pagan traditions.

Many different cultures celebrated the spring equinox – a time when day and night stood in perfect balance, before light and summer once again won the age-old battle against darkness and winter. 
The name itself comes from that of an ancient spring goddess, Eostre. Her name comes from the same root as 'east' or 'shining'. A hare was one of her key symbols, and so too was the egg.


The Venerable Bede, who lived in the 7th century, was the first to record her name as the source of the new Christian festival. Like many other pagan traditions, the festival of Eostre was adopted by the early Church in an attempt to convert followers of the old religions to their ways. 
Other goddesses traditionally celebrated at this time include: 
  Aphrodite, in ancient Greece
  Ashtoreth, from ancient Israel
         Demeter from Mycenae
  Hathor from ancient Egypt
  Ishtar from Assyria
  Kali, from India
  Ostara, a Norse Goddess of fertility

The story of Cybele, the Phrygian fertility goddess, is quite striking in its similarity to Christian mythology. 
Gerald L. Berry, author of "Religions of the World," wrote:

"About 200 B.C. mystery cults began to appear in Rome just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill ...Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually. The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection."

This is the reason why Easter was condemned during the Protestant Reformation as a ‘pagan’ celebration, and was banned by many religious movements including the Baptists, the Quakers, and Congregational Protestants. 

Wiccans and Neo-pagans celebrate the Spring Equinox as one of their eight holy days of celebration. It’s all about recognising the natural rhythm of the seasons, and the circular nature of life and death, summer and winter, light and darkness.

Work in your garden, cook a feast of spring lamb and fresh herbs, light candles, and devour eggs decorated with flowers and stars (even if they are chocolate) … and now you are continuing a tradition that began many millenniums ago. 

 

THE MAGIC OF THE NUMBER THREE

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Emily Rodda’s new fantasy series 'The Three Doors Trilogy' uses the device of three magical doors to create a portal for her heroes to set out on their quest. This got me thinking – not for the first time – about what a magical number three is. 



There is the Triple Goddess and the Holy Trinity. The Three Fates and the Rule of Three. Three wise men and three gifts. Three denials.

Bad luck comes in threes, and so, of course, does good luck.

Beginnings, middles and ends. 

Three-act structures.


Blood, sweat and tears. 

The rule of thirds in art.

Trilogies, triptychs, and Freytag triangles.

And, of course, three happens a lot in fairy tales. 

Let me see. 

Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Three Little Pigs. Three Blind Mice. Three Billy Goats Gruff. 



The Three Spinners. The Devil with Three Golden hairs. Three wishes. Three gifts. Three tasks. Three brothers, and, sometimes, three sisters.

Usually the first two fail in some way, allowing the third to succeed. 

This reflects the pattern of what comedians call ‘the comic triple’. The idea is that two points establish a pattern; the audience comes to expect for the pattern to be repeated; and so the break in the pattern comes as a surprise, which makes people laugh. 

Interestingly enough, many old fragments of Druid mythology also come grouped in three. For example, the old saying: ‘Three things not easily restrained: the flow of a torrent, the flight of an arrow, and the tongue of a fool.’

I always build a plot on three key pivotal moments, or three major obstacles. 

And I live my life by the Threefold Law, the idea that everything you give out to the universe is returned to you threefold.

Three is also, strangely, the date of my birthday (I was born on 3/6/66). 


A TRUE HISTORY OF HALLOWEEN

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

‘I know it’s a bit American,’ a mother apologised to me yesterday, when inviting my daughter to a Halloween party. 

‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘Halloween is older than America, or its culture anyway. It’s even older than Christianity.’

‘Really?’ she asked. 

‘Halloween has its roots in a pre-Christian Celtic festival,’ I told her. ‘And since most of us here have Celtic blood, it’s entirely appropriate for us to celebrate it.’

‘I never knew that,’ she said. ‘You should write something about it.’

So, never one to refuse an opportunity to write about a subject I find fascinating, here is my True History of Halloween:

Halloween was once one of the two most important religious rites of the Celtic calender (the other being six months later, on May Day). Long before Christianity reached the shores of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic people who lived there used to hold a festival celebrating the end of the year. Their New Year was November 1, and this festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-een). 



Samhain means ‘summer’s end’, and the festival signalled the end of the harvest season, and the turning of the year towards the long, cold, darkness of winter. 

For the Celtics, Samhain was one of the two hinges of the year, a time when the door between the worlds was opened. Since it was also a time when the world began turning towards darkness, the fields lay fallow, and the small, weak and old might die, Samhain is also a celebration of death and the dark mysteries. 

For many, it was thought to be a time to communicate with the dead, or with the gods. For others, it was a time to protect oneself against the mischief and malice of the unrestful dead, or the fairy creatures of the Otherworld. People used to leave out offerings of food and drink to appease any who were roaming the countryside. Anyone who fed the fairies would be rewarded, and anyone who failed to do so would be punished. 

People also used to carve fearsome faces into turnips to scare away malevolent spirits (carved pumpkins are a much later tradition, and, yes, come from America). People used to dress up, and play tricks, and beat pots and pans, all in an attempt to confuse and frighten the dead away.



Another key tradition was the lighting of sacred bonfires to honour the Celtic gods. Everyone would extinguish their own fire, and relight it from the one lit on the nearest hill or in the village square. Afterwards, the ashes of the fire would be sprinkled on the winter fields, blessing them and fertilising them for the next year. 

As Christianity began to spread into the Celtic lands, the Roman Catholic Church took over the old festivals and incorporated them into their own calendars. In 835 A.D., Pope Gregory IV re-named Samhain ‘All Saints’ Day’. All Saints Day was also known as Hallowmas, or All Hallows Eve, which gradually became pronounced Halloween. 

As the old pagan rituals persisted, despite all the attempts of the priests, the church decided to simply adopt them as Catholic rites. It became usual to light candles for the dead, for example, instead of sacred bonfires.
Instead of leaving out food for the fairies, the church set up a tradition whereby poor would ‘go a-souling’, walking from door to door asking for food and, in return, praying for the souls of the giver’s dead relatives. It was widely believed at the time that the souls of the dead would wait in purgatory till enough people had prayed for their souls. The poor would be given ‘soul cakes’ to eat, sometimes in return for a performance or song. As time went on, it became the practise for poor children to ‘go a-souling’, and so the ‘trick-and-treat’ tradition was born. 

In the 1500s, the Reformation brought in the Protestant religions, many of which did not allow for any saints or religious celebrations. Even Christmas and Easter were not permitted.

However, the old practices persisted, simply finding new names and new forms. Since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in early November, 1606, Samhain became known as Guy Fawkes Day, with bonfires, dressing up, parades, and other celebrations. Children would to go from door to door, asking for a ‘penny for Guy’, so they could make an effigy to burn on the bonfire. 


In the New World, the colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day for a while, but as the colonies became the United States of America, Guy Fawkes Day fell by the wayside. Halloween was certainly not a popular festival day, as most of the early settlers were Protestant and so disapproved of hat was clearly seen as a remnant of pagan culture. 

By the mid 1800s, however, many Irish Catholics fled the potato famine in Ireland by immigrating to the USA. They brought with them their old Halloween traditions, which caught the imagination of the public. Halloween is now one of the most popular festivals in the USA and, increasingly, the Western world. 
In Australia, we should properly celebrate Samhain on the 1st May and May Day on 31st October, as our seasons are back to front … but the festivities are much the same – the lighting of candles and bonfires, the feasting and playing, the thinking on the meaning of the turning of the seasons.

So Happy Halloween, everyone … and here’s a beautiful old Irish poem about Samhain to help you get in the mood:

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, Summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone,
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds.
Season of ice – these are my tidings.

Translated by Caitlin Matthews

You may also like to read my blog on Midwinter Feasts

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT, I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK


My Midwinter Feast

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Midwinter Solstice
Today is the midwinter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and I always like to celebrate by cooking a special meal for the family. This is what I plan to cook this year: 

Midwinter Feast
Roast beef & mushrooms
Roast potatoes, onions, carrots and pumpkin 
Green beans & peas


(Photo by John Paul Urizan)

For Pudding:
Apple & rhubarb crumble with cream

(I like to cook warm-coloured vegetables like pumpkin or rhubarb to remind us of the return of summer)

Midwinter Wish
The whole family will eat by candlelight, and then, whoever wants to, will write a wish for the coming year on a piece of paper and burn the paper in the candle flame. Simple!

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