Like many of you, I've always been fascinated by holidays. Needing to understand their origins, I researched them, especially after my father told me that holidays were described by Webster's Dictionary as Holy Days. They're also days that honor events or people, so regarding a few upcoming holidays, let's take a look.
Often people get embattled over Halloween and similar holidays. One side argues that these days are fun, while the others yowl that they are pagan, evil but we'll be the judge... More than 500 years ago, Spanish Conquistadors landed in Mexico, where people practiced a ritual that seemingly mocked death, D�a de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. It's viewed by indigenous people as the continuation of life. Yet Spaniards tried to kill the ritual, moving it to coincide with the Christian All Saints Day and All Souls Day on the first and second of November. On these days ethnic people still decorate the burial sites of loved ones and offer gifts. In homes, dedicated altars are constructed, surrounded by flowers, food, and photographs. Countless other ethnicities -- including the Yoruba people, a West African ethnic group -- have similar practices, because in some way all people want to honor their loved ones and deities.
What's with Halloween parties, vandalism, witches, and black cats, you may ask? Well, Halloween is All Hallows Eve which falls on the night before All Saints Day. However, Halloween has gotten a bad name because of the pranks that accompany it. These began so that others could get on the nerves of Catholics who kept vigil the night before All Saints, a day appointed by the Church in the eighth century to honor all the saints and martyrs. Yet in ancient times how one celebrated depend on where they lived -- in Christendom or a pagan city or village. In Brittany All Hallows Eve was a solemn night, because souls from Purgatory were believed to have been freed, to visit their former earthy homes. That day, families prayed by gravesites, and attended church for 'black vespers' during the evening. Singing hymns, they called for Christians to pray for the dead. Then late in the evening, women spread tablecloths, set out food and cider. Afterward, chairs would be placed around the table for those who would 'return.' Families would recite the De Profundis [Psalm 129] before going to bed, while a man walked the town streets, ringing a bell while warning that it was unwise to roam about at the time of returning souls.
In Ireland, Scotland, and England, All Hallows Eve combined prayer and merriment. However following the break with the Catholic Church, Queen Elizabeth forbade anyone to commemorate All Souls Day; yet ancient customs survived. Knocking at a neighbor's door to ask for a 'soul cake' or shortbread was one tradition where in return for the treat, the receiver would pray for that household's dead. Although when a family ran out of treats, or if they didn't offer any, charades and little dramas, morality plays were acted out on the doorstep.
It's probably from these pantomimes that the custom of Halloween masquerades started. The 'actors' wanted to send a message to the homeowners, 'don't be selfish or to the bad place you'll go.' Sometimes they painted their faces to look like the tormented souls waiting in Purgatory. Goblins, and witches with cats were used to remind Christians of the spirits loosed from hell that would keep track of the temporarily freed souls to be herded back to purgatory before first light. In many pantomimes and movies, even today, a figure that symbolizes death casts an eerie glow over graveyards and calls all loosed souls back to their graves. Remember icon Michael Jackson's Thriller video?
So how do the harvest fruits, cornstalks, and pumpkins come in, you might ask. All were companions to the soul cakes and are seasonal, even though in an Irish legend there was a miser named Jack who was so stingy he couldn't get into Heaven, but he was too clever to go to Hades, so he spent eternity roaming earth carrying a lighted pumpkin for a lantern -- the jack-o'-lantern -- so goes one explanation.
So you see Ethnic Beauties, Halloween originally stemmed from All Hallows Eve. Now you know how the melding of many customs created the day that has often been cause for a big brouhaha. Also, how you celebrate, or not, is entirely up to you.
For those of you that will -- enjoy and be safe!