The goblins and faeries will knock on your door, the ghosts and the ghouls will fall through your floor, the witches will fly and the ogres will fright, come out little ones, it is Halloween night! Well, you could call it All Hallow's Eve, or All Saints Eve. You could even go so far as to call it Samhain (pronounced sow-ween). It is a holiday celebrated at the end of October. It is a hodgepodge of ancient and modern, Christian and pagan traditions. And what a holiday it is.
I mean, you get to dress up, be mischievous, eat candy, go play at night, scare your little brother, and get scared yourself - it is the perfect holiday! It has more earthly roots, however, and some of our modern customs remember that, even if we don't. The elements of Halloween are easy to list - costumes, treats, pumpkins, apples, ghosts, scary things, and the supernatural. All have their stories, and all have combined for today's main event!
The Celts believed that on Oct. 31, at the end of the harvest and their year, that the barrier between the worlds of living and dead was the thinnest. This was a time when all the departed souls from the course of the entire year could enter the world of the dead and be at peace. This was the origin of Halloween, or Samhain, meaning Festival of the Dead.
They would light bonfires, to guide the dead to their own world and keep them from lingering with the living. They would sacrifice fruits, crops and livestock. Later, traditions such as carving faces from turnips and placing a candle inside became commonplace. These "heads" set on a windowsill would deter the ghosts and spirits from entering the houses of the living.
Later families would set out cakes, fruits, pies and other food on the steps of their houses for the wandering ghosts, faeries, goblins and other supernatural beings that claimed that night. This transformed into the earliest trick-or-treating as people would dress as those fantastical characters and perform antics to get the treats. See, even then people knew that dressing up was fun!
The earthly ties of this holiday are rich ones: the celebration of the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next, the movement of life to death, and the thanking of the earth by the people for the food that sustained them. This was one of the most important festivals of the year for the Celtic culture. It is not hard to understand why.
As I decorate with fall fruits and bake pumpkin pie, I will think of how such actions are ways to thank the earth for its bounty that feeds me through the year. I will relish the trick-or-treaters in costumes that come to my door, knowing that it is a time-proven tradition of pure fun and celebration. Most likely, I will be in costume as well. This year, I will light a bonfire, too, to help guide the wandering souls home. Through the end of the growing season and the beginning of the new cycle, I will celebrate the bonds between life and death. I may even leave some cakes on the back step for the creatures of the night, in whatever supernatural (or furry) form they take.
This holiday, as I remember it, is one of few that are celebrated in the night, in the dark. It is an element that takes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to face our fears and uncertainties. Perhaps all twilight has that power, but on a night when the barrier between the worlds is believed thin, even moreso. It allows the imagination to take control, it lets us be scared, and to connect and accept those ghoulish elements of both life and death.
That is something that has been a part of human culture from the very beginning. As creatures of the day, when night falls and twilight blurs the line between the real and the imagined, it heightens and sharpens our senses. It tingles our skin and races our hearts. So we light a fire, around which we gather, to bob for apples, and laugh and eat and drink, and send home those who have been lost, and thank the earth and all its natural and supernatural residents for all it has given. Celebrate!
This is it! The last day of October. Starting tomorrow, Audubon's nature center will only be open Mondays and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4:30 p.m. The trails and Liberty are still open from dawn to dusk. Visit www.jamestownaudubon.org or call 569-2345 for more information. Or stop down and chat when we're open. We're on Riverside Road, just off Route 63 between Warren and Jamestown. Happy Halloween!
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon and encourages everyone to dress up, go out, and have a good time!