Halloween and the In-Between
Or, Why You Should Carve A Jack-O'-Lantern
Halloween is one of many holidays linked to seasonal shifts. It’s a time that marks the end of summer harvests and the beginning of the long and lean winter months. It’s a time of bonfires, feasting on sweets, playing tricks, and importantly: dressing up in costumes and carving pumpkins.
In terms of agricultural cycles, a feast to celebrate everyone’s hard work over the growing season makes a lot of sense–but why costumes, tricks, and jack-o-lanterns? Why ghosts, goblins, witches, fairies, and other supernatural beings?
To understand Halloween, we might want to take a look at Samhain, one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals that has its roots among the ancient Celts (the other three being Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasadh). Samhain is said to have originally meant “summer’s end” (although this could be a folk etymology) and is historically celebrated around the same time as Halloween.
As a holiday marking the shift in seasons, one can imagine the stark prospects of a long winter during an era without modern conveniences such as refrigeration or adequate protection for dry food stores. Certainly, feasting and merry-making would be an effective way to shake off worry and dread and also help to reinforce important social bonds ahead of the inevitable lean days to come.
During Samhain, people would gather around bonfires, play divination games, and dress in costumes. In some of these ancient traditions, this involved dressing up as spirits or dead ancestors and going from house to house singing verses in exchange for food–playing pranks as they went.
This blurry line between seasons meant the boundaries separating our world and the supernatural world grew weaker, and fairies and spirits could use the opportunity to pass over to our side. It was important, therefore, to leave offerings for the spirits and wear disguises to throw off any would-be supernatural troublemakers. Wearing these disguises, early Samhain celebrants were known to light their way through the night carrying hollowed-out turnips or beets carved with spooky faces and lit from within (sound familiar?).
While it isn’t entirely clear or certain how Samhain is historically connected to Halloween, one hypothesis suggests the link occurred in the eighth century, when Pope Gregory III moved the celebration of All Saints’ Day or All Hallowmass to coincide with Samhain. This allowed the focus of the holiday to shift from spirits and fairies to souls and saints, translating the pagan tradition into a Christian one. Yet, here we are today, in the United States, still carving pumpkins and dressing up as spirits and fairies on Halloween–and Samhain is still celebrated by many here and abroad.
Speaking of the United States, every four years we have a Presidential Election. It’s interesting to consider how, like Halloween, Election Day marks a collective experience of the “liminal” or “in-between.” Sometimes the uncertainty can be a little spooky. Who will be the next President? What does the future hold? Can we rely on our neighbors to do their part?
This year, when we go to our polling station, we’ll be wearing masks. And when we cast our vote, it will be a little like lighting a jack-o-lantern to illuminate the path ahead.
So, carve a pumpkin tonight, leave some candy for the sprites, and make sure you cast your vote.