I love October...the crunchy leaves, the chilly nights...and the drama and imagination of Halloween. I was one of those little kids that lived in dress-up clothes, tripped around her mother’s heels and should have won an Oscar at some point in Kindergarten for my stellar performance of Little Red Riding Hood.
I am also an American Celt...no I have no real language or the major customs, but there were a bunch of Celts in my family tree. Despite the lack of language and a loss of many customs...the blood runs strong in other ways. The poet is alive, the warrior, the dreamer, and...Face it...maybe even a tad bit of the schemer. There is also the mystic who can step out into a night and almost see the shimmering layers that curtain us from other realities, as they ripple in some cosmic breeze.
Halloween began as such in a long distant time. It was a night when someone would leave the door between this world and the next ajar. The recently dead, and perhaps other things, could come to call. Saucers of milk would be left out as an offering to keep the visit...friendly.
So enjoy the sigh of the wind and the crackle of leaves as you walk. Set out your autumn decorations and enjoy the "October country" as author Ray Bradberry called it.....but leave some milk out on the night. Just in case.
Now some history; to understand the roots of Halloween it is necessary introduce the Celts.
The term Celts refer to numerous tribal groups occupying Europe from about 800 C.E. who shared a common language group. From the Steppes to Ireland they were the tradesman, philosophers, artisans, and warriors who dominated the landscape and successfully challenged early Rome. They were the ancestors of the people known as the “Gauls”, the “Norseman”, and the “Britons”. Although they shared a common language and fundamental religious beliefs, they developed in many different ways and practices varied.
One common belief held by many of these people groups was that on a particular night of the year the separation of this world from the next changed.
Like a curtain billowing in a breeze glimpses between the two co-existing realities were possible. Sometimes, the recently dead could slip back into the world of the living to say goodbyes, give a blessing, or cause a bit of mischief.
For the Celts, most of whom believed in reincarnation, death was but another part of existing. Customs of leaving small gifts to not offend the returning dead (and bring about problems) often developed. Animals were favored forms for the returning dead and so leavings milk out for dogs or cats became the custom in some locations.
All of this occurred at the turning of the year at Samhaim (Sow-wain). Harvest time the world over share similar festivals marking the end of the growing season, the successful gathering of the harvest, and celebration before the onslaught of winter’s stark chill.
Many of these Celtic customs came to America in early Colonial days, mingling with customs from the Dutch, the English, the Germans, and the Native Americans. There was even an element of the Roman feast of Saturnalia in how America celebrated the night; roles were reversed and chaos celebrated. Many aspects of this initially agrarian based festival would remain important and be kept alive in remote rural areas well into the 20th century. The greatest diversity occurs as locales become increasingly urbanized and more multicultural in the early years of the 20th century.
In Oklahoma, which did not become a state until 1907, there is distinct evidence of the old customs and the melting pot in action as customs from various times, and places begin to mingle and what emerges is the American Halloween. Evidence of this is revealed by the various names over the years: fall festival, harvest festival, “huskin’ time”, “begging night”, “Nutcrack Night” (a term from Britain), Halloween, and even for the more negative, “Helloween.”