"Soul, soul, for a souling cake,
I pray, good missus, a souling cake.
Apple or pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry."
It's Halloween, such a spooky time! We decorate our houses in orange and black and set out Jack-o'-lanterns to glow in the dark as we hover round fires telling ghostly stories drinking mugs of cider and give candy to children who dare to trick or treat. Yes, it's Halloween, but just what did this odd holiday evolve from?
The history of Halloween goes back to pre-Christian Europe, when Celtic groups in areas now known as Ireland, Scotland and Wales celebrated their New Years Day on November 1. The Celts were an agrarian society and based their society on the planting and the harvest of the food. Their calendar was circular following the rise and the fall of the sun and the turning of the seasons. Halloween was then known as Samhain or the summer's end. And for the Celts, this was the time when the world stood outside of ordinary time as the veil between the worlds grew thin allowing for the dead to cross between. Feasts were held and places were set at the table not only for the living but for the dead as they were remembered and honored.
When Christianity swept the continent, new holidays were established, and while these holidays were accepted, the agrarian communities were unwilling to give up their celebrations or forget the symbols important to their seasons. In 609 Pope Boniface IV, declared May 13 All Saints' Day. The locals were happy to add this new holiday to their calendar but saw no reason to give up their existing festival of the dead which they continued to celebrate. So Pope Gregory III moved All Saints' Day to the festival of Samhain but eventually changed the holiday to November 1. The festival still did not take over Samhain but instead became All Hallows and because Samhain fell on the night before All Hallows, it eventually became known Hallowe'en.
Trick-or-treating spun out of the European Christian tradition of going from home to home, asking for soul cakes, or currant buns on All Souls' Day. When the treat was given, the beggar would, in return, offer up a prayer for the soul of the homeowner's relative. The tradition of giving Soul Cakes, a small cake filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon or currants, originated in Britain or Ireland during the Middle Ages. Soul cakes, farthing cake, or Saumans loafs were made for distribution among the poor and handed out to children with "a blessing upon the living and a prayer for the dead." In Scotland, the soul cakes were made of oat flour and known as Dirge Loaves, while in Italy, the food of choice for All Souls' celebrations is a cookie called bones of the dead or "Ossi di Morto," In the Americas a belief originating with the Aztecs that the souls of the dead returned to Mexico with the migration of the monarch butterfly each fall, spawned today's popular Día de los Muertos during which sugar skulls and Pan de Muerto or 'bread of the dead' an anise flavored brioche is baked to honor the dead at graveside feasts.
Halloween came to America in the 1840's with the mass migration of the Irish who brought their Halloween folk customs them and jack-o'-lanterns, corn popping parties, taffy pulls and hay rides came to the new world, taking root and evolving over the years into our modern holiday.
Today, many of the ideas behind Halloween have been forgotten. For unlike our ancestors of the past, we live privileged pampered lives. Our needs are met. A quart of milk can be purchased at two in the morning in mid December, a loaf of bread bought even on holiday. Stores are open 24/7 for our convenience. We have lost sight of our ancestor's seasonal dance. No longer do we look to the sky to honor the seasons. The old customs have fallen away, the important moments of life forgotten.
Practicing seasonal observances, not only helps to keep us connected to the natural world, but also reconnects family bonds through feasts and celebrations, an interaction that creates holiday memories. When we take part in seasonal celebrations we are become active members in our communities strengthening our role in them. Seasonal celebrations also help to create an awareness of our connection with our ancestors and those who will follow after us. Taking part in family rituals protects the individual against a sense of loneliness as it transmits shared beliefs of the family group across generations. Through ritual we connect to generations, past and future.
This year, give new life to the old ways by remembering those who have passed on. Create a ritual. Get your friends and family to participate. When we pay homage to the dead, we teach and understand that we are a part of something much larger than the here and now.
Holding a dinner in honor of a loved is a wonderful way to assemble friends and family members and renew our bonds with the person who is gone. Simply draw up a guest list comprised of those who would benefit from remembering. Set a plate at the table for your loved one as the guest of honor and prepare the food with their favorite dishes in mind. When everyone is present, encourage them to tell their favorite story…and remember.
Planting a tree is also another wonderful way to honor a loved one in a gesture that heals as it provides solace and beautifies space. By planting a tree you are tapping into the ancient customs of honoring nature and the earth. To do this, choose a tree keeping in mind the maintenance your tree will require and where it will grow best. Next dig a hole three times wider than the tree's root ball.
Invite those who would benefit and ask each person present to bless the tree or offer up a prayer as you cover the roots with dirt. Remember you want to plant the tree the same depth as it was planted in the pot. If you bury the trunk deeper, the tree will rot. You can form a berm around the hole with the excess soil. This will help hold water and direct it toward the roots.
As cultures across the world take time this month to remember their ancestors, let us also honor our dead. Let the magic swell within your heart as you bake some bread or sweets for the ancestors who have gone before you. Let us pay homage to endings and transformations as we let go of the old and look ahead to the new.