Today’s guest blog comes courtesy of multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author Lisa Morton, who, in addition to her impressive screenwriting and producing work, also penned the wonderful novel The Castle of Los Angeles, which has been getting a fierce amount of buzz around the Internet. Lisa is no stranger to all things Halloween, as evidenced by some of the books she has to her name that explore that very subject: The Halloween Encyclopedia, A Hallowe’en Anthology: Literary & Historical Writings Over the Centuries, and The Samhanach. Most recently, she edited Halloween Spirits: 11 Tales for the Darkest Night.
Here she discusses some of the misconceptions about the season…
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Ahhh, yes, October is here. That wonderful time of year when seasons change, the air cools and fills with the scent of burning leaves, the stores are full of black and orange displays that delight the eye, and the pagans and Christians once again duke it out over Halloween. This year in particular–thanks in part, I suppose, to the ubiquity of Facebook–the battle seems particularly heated. On one hand are the fundamentalists Christians, who say Halloween stems from an ancient Celtic holiday in which wild savages donned costumes and danced around bonfires to commune with spirits from the beyond. And on the other hand are the pagans, who say Halloween stems from an ancient Celtic holiday in which wild savages donned costumes and danced around bonfires to commune with spirits from the beyond.
Yes, I’ve noticed more and more that the Christian denunciation of the holiday and the pagan defense are couched in virtually the same terms. The only difference ultimately becomes one of intent: The Christians believe the Celts were calling evil spirits, while the pagans will tell you that the Celts were communing with either ancestral or natural spirits.
Both, of course, are completely wrong.
Let’s set the record straight on a few of the more common and frequently quoted Halloween mistakes. Yes, it’s true that our modern autumn holiday owes something to the Irish Celts’ celebration of Samhain, or ‘summer’s end’, but it owes just as much, if not more, to the Catholic observations of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. Yes, the Celts did believe that Samhain was the one night a year when the veil between worlds was thinnest, but the Celts were hardly noble savages who donned animal skins and grunted a lot. The Celts were advanced in everything from road-making to politics, and the fires they lit on Samhain were used as part of their tax collection system (an ember from the newly-kindled main bonfire was provided to nearby property holders in exchange for taxes paid). The Celts didn’t record their own history or customs, but early Christian missionaries did, and we have a solid amount of both mythological and archaeological evidence on the Celts, and exactly NOWHERE do we have any suggestion that the Celts dressed in costume on Samhain, or carved leering faces into turnips, or went begging from house to house, or danced ecstatically around bonfires.
Samhain was, however, a magical time for the Celts. The ancient tales are full of examples of the sidh, or fairies, crossing over into our realm and wreaking havoc. Some of the Samhain stories focus on great heroes who overcome monsters like the deformed Fomorians, who rampage across the country on Samhain. There are also love stories set on Samhain, like the tale of Angus, who fell in love with a princess who was cursed to transform into a swan at Samhain, so Angus transformed himself and flew away with her.
I’d like to urge both my Christian and Pagan friends to do yourselves a favor and read up a bit more on the true history of the Celts and their folklore before you condemn Halloween or praise it. Not only will you discover that it’s not what you thought it was, but I’m betting you’ll realize that the actual history of Halloween and Samhain is far richer and stranger and more enchanting than what you’d previously thought.