The Origin of Halloween Comes Out of the Sky
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
Ghosts! Goblins! Harmless pranks. Trick or Treat. Halloween is here again!
What a strange day this is. It might surprise you to learn that Halloween
actually has an astronomical origin.
How many parts can we divide the year into? I suppose the answer is, as many
as we wish: we have months, weeks and days, hours and minutes. Some cultures
have divided the year into only two seasons, one warm and the other cold, summer
and winter. Currently most people think in terms of four seasons, and the
official beginnings of these comes with the solstices and equinoxes. Thus, we
started autumn this year in late September when Earth reached the place in its
orbit so that the Sun crossed the point in space that is defined as the autumnal
equinox. Although that was the official beginning, many people think about it
differently. In practice, summer ends for most Americans with the Labor-Day
weekend, the last holiday opportunity for getting away to some favorite
campground when the weather is still apt to be conducive to such activity. After
that, children are in school and stores advertise things that go with changes in
the landscape accompanying changes in the weather, signaling the fall
The same thing happens with winter. Even though it officially begins in late
December, our lives sense the onslaught of winter earlier. In some sense, this
is a reflection of the way things were in the times of our ancestors, at least
for those of us who can trace our lineage back to Europe. So that you can see
what I mean by this, let me introduce you to the concept of cross-quarter dates,
the times between the equinoxes and solstices.
In old Germanic and Celtic societies, what we call equinoxes and solstices
marked the middles of the seasons, not the beginnings. Thus, the autumnal
equinox, in late September, was the middle of autumn, and the beginning of
winter was mid-way between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, one of
four cross-quarter dates. Using this system, there are eight dates that divide
the year: the four cross-quarter dates that, for those European people marked
the beginnings of seasons; the two equinoxes and two solstices, marking the mid-
points of the seasons in European tradition.
So, let's focus on the cross-quarter date that we are approaching right now,
the one between autumnal equinox and winter solstice. The Celts called it
Samhain (pronounced sah-win), "summer's end." As the beginning of the cold part
of the year, they thought of this as a dangerous time, a seam in the annual
cycle when stitches might snap, ripping the fabric of reality to let in elements
of chaos. This was the Celtic new-years eve, celebrated on the last day of
October. They brought their cattle out of pastures into shelter, then celebrated
with a great fire festival to encourage the dimming Sun not to vanish. People
danced round bonfires to keep evil spirits away, but left their doors open in
hopes that the kind spirits of loved ones might join them around their hearths.
On this frightful evening divination was thought to be more effective than any
other time, so methods were derived to ascertain who might marry, what great
person might be born, who might rise to prominence, or who might die.
In 835 AD, the Catholic Church named November 1 as All Saints' Day, a time to
remember the holy people who had lived and died, but the traditions of the past
persisted in new forms. Now bonfires blazed to light the paths of souls to
heaven, church bells tolled to guard against evil, and people scattered graves
with offerings of flowers and foods that had been favored by the deceased. The
previous day, October 31, became known as All Hallows' Eve, or Halloween.
Joined together, these two traditions, one pagan and the other Christian,
continued to flourish in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. People went out guising,
dressed in masks and robes to frighten away evil. Some went from farm to farm
demanding food tributes to an old god, Muck Olla, carrying "jack-o'-lanterns;"
hollow turnips with candles burning inside. An Irish tradition spoke of a man
named Jack who wandered between heaven and hell with such a turnip set aglow by
an ember thrown to him by the devil. Methods of divination included the
gathering of Families around fires to throw in marked stones: any stones not
later found among the ashes threatened the death of the throwers during the
coming year. Young girls bobbed for apples, and those successful kept the fruit
under their pillows hoping to dream of the ones they would marry.
Bits and pieces of such traditions came to America with pilgrims fleeing some
things of the past, but retaining others, often in revised form: pumpkins
replaced Irish turnips; guising became trick-or-treating as children begged for
food offerings that in olden times had been prepared for the dead. At the root
of all of this is the fact that Earth, gliding in its orbit, had reached the
place where we notice the diminishing energy from the Sun onto our part of the
world. Thus, the origin of this cross-quarter celebration comes down from the
sky. Think of it which ever way you wish: with the old Celts, the dangerous time
of transition when one might encounter malicious spirits of the dead, monsters,
and nowadays even aliens from other worlds; the middle of autumn; the beginning
of winter; or just plain old Halloween.
This article was modified from the original to serve as an information
source for all Halloween cross-quarter events.
Another good article to read is Phil Plait's What Causes the Seasons?
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