Okay, I think I may have inadvertently quoted song lyrics from the ’80s, but it’s apropos when it comes to the subject of Halloween and why we dress up as ghosts and ghouls…why we celebrate it at all. Eerily so, and I’ll tell you why.
Halloween’s origins are rooted in the Samhain festival, which celebrated the end of the harvest season and marked the beginning of the “dark” season. It was held from sunset to sunset, October 31 to November 1. Don’t get excited yet, folks. It’s dark because of the cycles of the moon, solstices, and whatnot - not anything supernatural. But this fact definitely serves to tie together the concepts of seasons changing, doesn’t it? See? There was a reason I brought neon gloves and big hair back to the forefront of your mind. Ok, stay with me now…
During this celebration there was said to be much candle lighting and drinking, dancing, maybe a little praying for the dead and, well, I need not go further – you get the point. But there was also something else, something you may not readily expect. People believed that this 24-hour time period marked a thinness to the layer that is purported to exist between the land of the living and the afterlife… a layer that could be breeched easily during the festival, letting the ghosts traverse among us.
… because… who makes them go back…?
The people donned disguises (read: costumes) to trick any ghosts that might have slipped through and they thought that many would do just that, because while some didn’t want to see the ghost of their long, lost relatives coming to visit in the dark of night, others did and actively prayed and chanted and did whatever else they could think of to affect that end. Some people were terrified that the ghosts that came through might want to capture them (take their souls…?), so they dressed up as livestock so as not to be identified. They hollowed out pumpkins and gourds and outfitted them with candles (ohhhh!) so they could have light. But some, oh, some welcomed the ghosts with open arms.
Over time, people decided that hiding from the ghosts that might cross the line between the living and The Realm of the dead wasn’t enough. They dressed up as saints (hiding still because the fear was still real) and preached at people’s doors. People baked soul cakes to commemorate the dead and others went door to door collecting them… any of this sound familiar, folks?
But then, well, people changed. The celebrations slowly moved away from the religious guarding of the life/afterlife border to the chance to dress up, get candy and other yums, and maybe scare the neighborhoods a bit… thank the Irish for that little addition to the pot, as if the thought of your 2nd grade teacher dragging you to the afterlife wasn’t frightening enough. North America takes this holiday seriously – once it got here carried in the memories of the immigrants that filled the country at the turn of the century (the 20th century, that is), it gradually became a machine. Pockets of the world celebrate the holiday, some in the same way that North America does, others in completely different ways. Many eastern nations don’t celebrate the holiday at all – some are not allowed to by mandate. But among those that do, the ones who don a costume and obstruct their features to run and cavort in the night, filling their buckets, sacks, and cheeks with candy… do they realize that they might have just sidestepped a ghost that could have recognized them? Might have even reach out to touch when they did…?
Maybe there’s more to All Saints Day, which turns true at the stroke of midnight, than meets the eye…