Halloween is my favorite holiday.
This is for many, many reasons. I have wonderful memories of Halloween as a child. Of course, there was walking up and down Dale Road from house to house, collecting candy. I particularly remember one house that gave out giant candy bars – not the mini ones – and another woman who was a baker who gave out candied apples or giant cookies – those sugary ones covered in rainbow sprinkles. The houses were far apart in my neighborhood and not many kids trick-or-treated around there, they would go with a friend who lived where the houses were closer together. I remember coming home and dumping out my candy and looking, hopefully, for some dark chocolate.
I remember the amazing costumes my mother made. Some of her greatest ones were the mermaid and Sigmund the Sea Monster – both for my sister Melodie. Also I remember the ice cream sundae, the half man/half woman and the year I was a bunch of grapes. I remember the great parties they used to throw at the Ringwood Volunteer Fire House – where my dad was a long- standing member. We would dunk for apples, and do this crazy lifesaver on a string game.
In college, Halloween was fun because I started attending my friend Emily’s pumpkin parties. This would always be held a week or so before Halloween and involved large groups of adults carving pumpkins together and eating pumpkin foods. To this day one of my favorite foods in the world is her Pumpkin Curry Soup. We had a pumpkin party here in France last year and it was so much fun to introduce pumpkin carving to the French audience.
Once we started having kids, Halloween became even better. Every year on Gowen Circle we do amazing and elaborate Halloween decorations, with lights and cobwebs and, one year, a gigantic scary face on a tarp. We do crafts and go to parties and Trunk or Treats. There are Halloween parades at school and, of course, the candy to enjoy. There is so much diversity in our community it is hard to find a non-offensive celebration – but Halloween is enjoyed by pretty much everyone. Now I am the one giving out the candy and making the really cool costumes – life is good.
Well, this year we were to be in Ireland where, in fact, Halloween has its ancient roots. Although most see it as a secular holiday, Halloween has deep spiritual beginnings (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween) This celebration evolved from the traditional harvest festivals celebrated by people all over the world, but, most particularly, the Celts in Ireland. The night of October 31st, known as Samhain (pronounced sow-en) was the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the dark. The veil between the world of the living and dead is thin, allowing both benevolent and malevolent spirits to pass through to our world. In ancient times, the Celts placed the skulls of their ancestors outside their doors on this night, for protection. Later, people carved turnips to ward off evil spirits and even later, this practice evolved to mean they were commemorating souls trapped in purgatory. They also wore costumes or masks to disguise themselves as evil spirits. This would make the real evil ones unable to recognize them. They built great bonfires and slaughtered their livestock that would be needed to survive the coming winter months. They mourned the death of nature, and celebrated the fact that light would someday return. They had great feasts, sang and danced and prayed for the winter to be short and gentle. The great warrior elites of Ireland, the Fianna, gave up all battles until Beltaine (May 1st). Much of this tradition lives on in our current Halloween practices.
I am very interested in ancient spirituality and wanted to see if we could find, for this year, a group of people celebrating Samhain as it was thousands of years ago. It took a long time, but finally we found just what we were looking for in Athboy, a small town that holds the Hill of Tlachtga (pronounced Clockda – gotta love Gaelic).
We got there a bit early for the 7pm start and I made dinner while Daddie helped to carve our pumpkin (seen above). This was tough to accomplish with a tool little sharper than a butter knife but I didn’t feel like it would really be Halloween without a pumpkin – and how could we miss our protection from the evil spirits? Zander put on his costume (the other two had them on almost all day) and I did a bit of face paint – Callie requested Celtic designs and even Daddie got lucky with his pipe cleaner hat his loving daughter made for him. Griffin was a road, in case you are wondering (I figure Callie, mermaid, and Zander, pirate, are pretty obvious). Callie and André have started playing trust fall together on this trip and the photo below shows her being caught in the arms of her wonderful dad!
We had told the kids this would be no ordinary Halloween but, with a few moments to spare, we stopped on our way to get our torches at an open house for a trick or treat. The nice old lady passed us a few little candy bars and asked us to give her a song. We complied with a French one and now, as I research this, I realize we actually did not go trick-or-treating but rather guising. Guising is an old Irish and Scottish tradition where you need to either sing a song or tell a story to earn your treats. I like this idea and think we should encourage it. It would make you connect more with your visitors, and slow down the mad rush for candy.
After a bit of confusion we got our torches and joined a bunch of other confused tourists and a much larger group of patient locals on the Fairy Ring in the Athboy Green. It was raining, pitch dark and the organizers were about half an hour late. It turns out, as well as giant bonfires, Irish traditionally set off fireworks for Halloween. The park was an ideal location for setting them off and we felt a bit like we were under fire as we waited for the ceremony to begin. Note evidence, right!
Then, the magic began. We were joined by a large group of organizers, in full Druidic robes and were regaled with the amazing story of this place. It turns out that in every village, all over Ireland, there was a small fire, called the need-fire, that was constantly kept burning. People took turns tending it, and, if your home fire went out, you would re-start it with brands from the need-fire. It symbolized the heart of the community. Well, every year, all over Ireland, the need fires were extinguished at the end of harvest season and emissaries, most likely Druids (who were the high priests of this culture) were sent, traveling days or even weeks to Athboy – and the Hill of Tlachtga. They reached it by Samhain night – and they all journeyed up to the hill of Tlachgta. It was there the sun god and the goddess Tlachgta were remembered, and a new fire would be lit. In fact, some legends say that the fire was collected at Lambay, from the volcanic lava there, and brought by boat up the River Boyne, then along the Yellow River that flows close to the Hill Of Tlachtga. The flame was then carried up the hill to become the new pure flame at Samhain. From this sacred blaze, the druids would take a piece back, tending it for days or weeks, until they could rejoin their villages, and once again light the need-fire for the coming year. The fire connected them, bound them, and the strength and warmth of these bonds, kept them going throughout the long and harsh winter season, and, indeed, all year long.
We learned a song to chant on the march to the hill. The photos of how the site currently looks from the air, and how it may have looked during Celtic times are thanks to knowth.com:
Tlachtga, Lady, Goddess Fair
Come to us on frosted air
Guide us by the pale moonlight
Light our fires on Samhain night
Then we started off – marching and singing for over a mile, through wind and rain. I wished more people had gotten into the spirit and sung since it was amazing how hard it was to walk, briskly, and keep chanting over and over for 15 minutes or so – it made my heart pulse and my body beat to the rhythm of the song, the same rhythm the rest of the community was creating. Holding our torches aloft and trying to keep up, we journeyed onward. About halfway up we met the goddess herself on the wayside, who blessed our journey and then, finally, we made it to the hill itself. Even stopping, standing around a sacred circle on a hill top, and waiting for others to catch up, the rhythm still thrummed within me. Then they had us sing together again before reenacting the story of Tlachtga – whose name means “Earth Spear” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tlachtga). Tlachtga was the daughter of Mug Ruith, a great and learned Druid. She and he thirsted for knowledge and traveled far and wide, learning whatever they could. In time, her father and his mentor, Simon Magus, grew too old for journeys and Tlachtga built a flying machine and traveled the world over, learning whatever she could and sharing her knowledge with the two men. Eventually though, they realized she was far wiser than they, and enraged, her father discarded her to be raped by the sons of Simon Magus at Imbolc. She returned to Ireland where she gave birth, at Samhain, to three sons on this very hill. The same hill that now bears her name. She promised if only we remember to honor her, and the names of her sons (Doirb, Cumma and Muach), that Ireland would always remain free.
We all participated in calling her to light the flame –
Tlachtga, Oh Tlachtga (clap, clap)
Tlachtga, Oh Tlachtga (clap, clap)
Tlachtga, Oh Tlachtga (clap, clap)
Tlachtga, Oh Tlachtga (clap, clap)
After her arrival and blessing, the new fire was complete. We then, all 200 of us or so, joined hands, remembering that this is the time of transition, a time when the spirits of the dead are close all around us. Indeed, it was anciently believed that this was the time when all the spirits of those who had died since the last Samhain had their chance to move on. Everyone was invited to remember their lost loved ones, and, if they wished, call out their names. The joining of hands, between so many different people and the respect they showed, was incredible. I mentioned my grandmother, Helen Lewis, who I still miss dearly. Finally, they closed the ritual with a song and sharing food and drink, in the spirit of the community we had created and in appreciation of the bounty of the harvest time just passing. I’m sure the party continued on the hill for hours more but we had three exhausted little ones and walked back to our van, still chanting a bit and appreciating the sight of the hills surrounding Tlachtga, glowing with the bonfires lit all over the countryside on this sacred night.