Hallowe’en isn’t a thing in Poland. My students, who obviously have different holdays that they celebrate to mine, are always interested in why we celebrate Hallowe’en, November 5th and Boxing Day. I, on the other hand, am always curious as to why Santa comes early in Europe and am still waiting for a reasonable explanation from someone as to what Corpus Christi is actually celebrating. To be clear “It’s something about God” is not a full explanation!
These are good lessons. They are always fun. However, what was not fun was my wife’s reaction to me telling her that we are going to a Hallowe’en party on Saturday. Just for a little background, the good lady wife is Catholic and a pretty strong one at that. “I’m not celebrating the devil!” she cried in absolute disgust. “You’ll have to cancel. Anyway, we have to go to the cemetary the next morning to put candles on graves for All Saints’ Day”.
Oh, the irony.
I’m prepared to be wrong here but here is my understanding of 4 country-specific holidays that seem totally unrelated but are all celebrating the same thing:
30 April (Czech Rep.): čarodějnice / Witching Night
1 May (UK): May Day
31 Oct (Ireland): Hallowe’en
1 & 2 Nov (Poland): All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day
It is no coincidence that the night before All Saints’ Day is otherwise known as Hallowmas. These things are really one and the same thing, celebrated in different ways around Europe and the world. What my wife thinks of as a terribly heathen thing to be celebrating is, no doubt, the other side of the same coin as what she feels to be a good wholesome celebration the next day.
To understand the relevance of the dates, imagine the year as a wheel and then cut it in half. The night between April and May is exactly half a year removed from that dissecting October and November. Now, think about those dirty heathen Pagans who lived all those years ago doing nothing more useful than building henges and so on. For then, the world had two distinct seasons, one when the land was bountiful and one which was characterised by long nights and a dearth in the soil.
For such people, who worshipped the sun, the spring and summer were the time of the year in which their deity was with them. The time from November to April was a dark and foreboding period of cold and danger and a lack of sustenance. They believed that the world was ruled for that period by what superstitious people nowadays may think of as the devil.
The four celebrations are therefore all riffs around the same chords. Hallowe’en would have been the time of year that the Celts of ancient Ireland gathered together, dressed as ghouls, to scare away the bad spirits that they believed were descending upon the world for the coming months. They were simply marking the end of harvest and the coming of the beginning of the dark half of the year with a feast that bordered on the macabre as a way to ward away evil.
In the Czech Republic they mark the last day of the dark half of the year with a celebration burning effigies of witches, to symbolise the death of the darkness that had held the world in its hand. In Britain, May Day is a celebration to bless the earth on the first day of the sun’s semiannual reign—not to be confused with the coincidental 1st May celebrations that mark Labor Day in Russia and America (at least that is one thing they both agree on!)
So, far from being the religious antidote to the heathen venom of devil worship that is Hallowe’en, All Saints’ Day is a simple extension of the same thing. The belief was the world was ruled by darkness from the first of November, so lights would be put on the graves of the dead to ward off evil spirits, to help guide the spirits of the dead through the darkness.
It is a strange quirk of religion to adopt the traditions of other religions, cults or societies and then conveniently forget all about it and renounce them as ungodly. My wife was even taught to fear Hallowe’en by priests in her youth.
So, if you are in the same position and are not sure about whether enjoying Hallowe’en is going to get you sent to Hell or not… here is my advice. Don’t worry because:
a) Hell certainly does not exist
b) Even if it did, you would have to do something worse than cut up a pumpkin and have a little fun to get there
c) Even if Hell did exist, and even if you were going to go there for celebrating Hallowe’en, you’d also go there for celebrating All Saints’ Day too, as it has the same Pagan root. So, in that case, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Take it easy and have a Happy Hallowe’en, an anything-but-moribund All Saints’ Day, a wonderful Walpurgisnacht and a merry May Day 🙂