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Hallowe’en: a time to honour departed souls

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Today, 31 October (2009), is Hallowe’en, or All Hallows Eve, which precedes All Hallows Day or All Saints Day.

The Feast of All Saints dates back to AD837, when it replaced the Feast of All Holy Martyrs, previously held on 13 May. The Christian church chose to hold a festival at this time of year in order to absorb existing pagan practices into Christianity.

Many of the Hallowe’en traditions have evolved from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain — a Gaelic word meaning “end of the summer”. The festival was a celebration of the end of the harvest and is sometimes regarded as the Celtic new year.

The ancient Celtic pagans would take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The custom of burning the bones of slaughtered cattle in a “bone fire” gave rise to the word “bonfire”.

The ancient Celts believed that on 31 October the boundary between the living and the dead dissolved and the dead became dangerous for the living by causing problems such as sickness or damaged crops.

Lanterns carved from a turnip or swede were used to scare off spirits. The lanterns were known as jack-o’-lanterns, a term that can be traced back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a greedy, gambling, hard-drinking old farmer.

He tricked the Devil into climbing a tree and trapped him by carving a cross into the tree trunk. In revenge the Devil cursed Jack to wander the earth at night with the only light he had — a candle inside a hollowed turnip.

Modern pagans honour ancestors and other departed souls at Samhain. A meal is often prepared of the departed’s favourite foods, a place set for them at the table, and traditional songs, poetry and dances performed to entertain them. A west-facing door or window may be opened and the dead invited to attend.

It was thought that the presence of spirits could help ancient Celtic priests make predictions about the future. The most common predictions were the identity of a future spouse, number of children and location of future homes.

Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often used in these rituals. For example, an apple was peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder and its shape examined for signs of the first letter of a future spouse’s name.

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