I am grateful to my friend, Leita for informing me about the Celtic origins of Halloween. I have generally believed that Halloween is a meaningless and flippant holiday; one that I avoided. It is the cause of jokes now that our children have grown up totally scarred because they were never allowed to go out trick or treating or engage in Halloween activities. The fact is…. in our house…. Halloween didn’t exist. I suppose that caused some issues for our kids.
We saw some great movies on Halloween night when the boys were young. It was my only way to help them get through the Halloween excitement without engaging in the activities. We didn’t have a lot of money in those days. I remember consciously saving enough to take them out for the evening and avoid the trick or treaters knocking on our apartment door begging for candy. I, for one, looked forward to having that night away from the antics of the holiday and together, creating alternative experiences with my kids.
My children grew up in a Jewish home. Wearing costumes and pretending to be someone else happens on a holiday called Purim when the intention is to dress up like the characters of the story of Purim. Wearing costumes on Halloween had no particular cultural significance. And going from house to house, begging for candy, dressed in monster costumes or Batman, simply went against every idea about healthy eating and nutrition that I tried to model.
Halloween is a very scary time for some youth. I realized that when I was a middle school teacher in the inner city of Toronto. In the students’ journals, as Halloween approached, expressions of stress and worries about ‘being mugged’ or ‘attacked’ for candy became a common topic of note. Many of these youth came from other countries, wanting to fit in to the Canadian way. In adolescence they want nothing more than to be accepted in the social mores of the environment. For many, Halloween made no sense in their country of origin, and complying with the practice just became easier than fighting the mainstream.
In addition, Halloween became opportunity for danger. Stories of razor blades and poison in distributed food led to the termination of homemade, interesting desserts to share with neighbours. The holiday became, for many, opportunity for violence and horror! Even movies depicting frightening faces of vampires and monsters intended to scare and haunt the child psyche. Desensitization to murder, carnage and gore brutality becomes desirable and amusing. There’s something wrong with this picture! Especially in a world that struggles with war, urban violence, prejudice and teen bullying, we want to promote and model positive activities. We need to be way more loving and compassionate and kind. Those are the behaviours we want to model and highlight.
We were definitely the exception in our community in Toronto. Most people completely bought into the practices of Halloween. Making (or buying) costumes, purchasing bags and bags of Hershey’s or Cadbury to distribute, getting involved with Halloween parties, all became a part of the days leading up to October 31st.
In my own classroom the challenge was to acknowledge the holiday and still respect the various cultures and religions that were represented in our learning environment. To represent the day, we would have a potluck lunch. Everybody had to bring food that was black or orange. Recently I have learned some interesting information about Halloween that opens me up to make more sense of this holiday.
A Pagan holiday in origin, it is said that October 31 is considered to be the identification of the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the 'darker half' of the year. The separation of the seasons is a time for change, ‘house cleaning’, preparation and inner reflection. It is time when many believe the ‘door’ to the otherworld opens allowing the souls of the dead to appear. It reminds me a bit about saying Yizkor and connecting to the loved ones in our lives who have passed. The Celtic holy day of Halloween is actually called Samhain (pronounced sow in). During the festivities people wore costumes to disguise themselves so they are unrecognizable from the evil spirits that could appear. Jack-o-lanterns, originally made from turnips, were carved and lit along the pathways for light and protection from the spirits. This was the last chance for these souls to seek vengeance on Earth before they were permanently settled in heaven. The trick or treating practice originated from the desire to distribute food to poor people who came to one’s house. Doing good and helping others, people believed, would save their souls. Like Yom Kippur, it represents your ‘last chance’ for redemption.
There is also a Christian connection to Halloween, which many of us know as ‘All Hallows Eve’. Like the Celtics, it too is assumed that those spirits, who have not yet passed in to the Other World, use their last chance to make a presence in this world before they are moved on to Heaven.
I wish I had known more about Halloween while I was growing up and growing up my children. I’m not sure if it would have influenced me to practice the rituals for the holidays, but I do think I would have been much more forgiving of those who did.
Happy Halloween to all those who care…