What are we celebrating?
Rewind over 2,000 years to find yourself amongst a Pagan tribe in ancient Ireland. Today is October 31st: the last day of the Celtic calendar. More than that, today is the Day of the Dead. It is the day of the death of Somhain, Celtic God of the Dead. In translation, it is "summer's end," the day when all that is living, and growing, and shining is swallowed by the shadowy, indicative silence of winter.* Tomorrow, November 1st, marks the New Year, though not a particularly cheery one.
On this day, you and all of those around you carry a great and very real fear, for, at night, the spirits of the dead will walk amongst the living to reestablish their presence. You crowd around a huge bonfire until midnight marks the death of light, the death of a dying year. You arrive in disguise, so that you may blend in with the dead that roam restlessly about the countryside. Like all of your neighbors, you've already placed exquisite meals upon your windowsills, outside your doors, covering each opening to your home with a collage of your finest cuisine. For whom? None other than the dead themselves. To them, you offer treats as a gesture of peace to the lurking souls. This is a night of remembrance, though it is no less one of the utmost fear. You wait, trembling, hoping to live through the Festival of the Dead...**
What are we saying/seeing?
To override these Pagan practices across ancient Ireland, Pope Gregory III declared November 1st All Hallows' Day, a holiday in recognition of all saints past and present. Despite this celebration having picked up and spread throughout Europe, the Pagan observance of the Day of the Dead continued each preceding day, becoming known as All Hallows' Eve, and eventually, Hallowe'en.
How did it get here, you might ask. Most officially, Celtic traditions came to America with the mass immigration after the Irish potato blight in the mid-1800s. Around this time, the gigantic bonfires during All Hallows' Eve found themselves contained as embers within carved out gourds and pumpkins for use as lanterns--jack-o-lanterns, that is. Even the costumes used today are reminiscent of the disguises that the Celts once used to blend in with the dead on All Hallows' Eve.***
What are we doing?
The meals on sills from ancient times were the way of preventing the tricks, or the tampering of the dead with the affairs of the living. Today, the vagrant spirits in ravenous search of food are ecstatic children, dressed as something of the sort, seeking the sugary sweets of kind neighbors.
Same thing? Not quite, but for the most part the idea is there. Each knock on the door and ensuing exclamation of "Trick or Treat" from an eager child represents the act of begging by a restless ghost. And from the other end, each Snickers' bar, popcorn ball (my favorite), and random can of generic soda from Aunt Lucille is the offering made (the treat) to prevent the wrath and haunting of the dead left unfed. Celts were not alone in this annual ritual. No, it occurred all across Europe in the same age, with Mexico's Dia de los Muertos, even among the Egyptians with the death of Osiris 2,000 years before the Celts. And its message, consciously or not, lives on in the proceedings of our holiday today.
Halloween, though celebrated differently and under different names across the world, has but one deep-seated origin that ensures its existence today: fear. It's become one day to recognize fear of all darkness, fear of all death. What we know of now is a spooky commemoration and manifestation of that very same fear. Of the death of the sun. The death of growth. The death of the fear of Death. 'Tis truly the Day of the Dead...
Pretty ghoul, huh?
* Bradbury, Ray, and Joseph A. Mugnaini. The Halloween Tree. New York: Knopf; distributed by Random House, 1972. Print.
** "Halloween -- History.com Articles, Video, Pictures and Facts." History.com -- History Made Every Day -- American & World History. Web. 20 Oct. 2011
***Trevarthen, G. A. (2010). The celtic origins of halloween transcend fear. Phi Kappa Phi Forum, 90(3), 6-6-7.