Hallowed


Now that Hallowe’en is over, the Petchary would like to speak up on behalf of an ancient tradition that is often much maligned on this island of Jamaica.  Primarily by Christians – and I say this with emphasis, as they do themselves, possibly to emphasize their sense of superiority to the rest of us heathens.  There we are, I’ve already started on a controversial note.

Hallowe’en – October 31 – was the last day of the Celtic year.  As someone with more than a drop of Celtic blood in her veins, I don’t really appreciate people condemning the traditions that are a part of my cultural and indeed family heritage.   I don’t disrespect other people’s traditions –  and I think a little more understanding (and research/information/knowledge) would be nice.  (It puzzles me that in this “age of information” one can still be so ill-informed.   I guess it’s lazy thinking).

Celtic Tree Wheel
The Celtic year was more circular in nature, depending on nature and the seasons

But I digress.  The original Hallowe’en was the Celtic feast of Samhain.  It goes back to the eighth century and even further back – some say to Roman times.  A time of year when the nights draw in, the sunsets are richer and the shadows deeper.  The end of the harvest and the beginning of winter.  A time when thoughts turn inward, away from the material, towards the spiritual.  OK so far?  I think so.  Evil and Satanic?  I think not.

The odd thing about these Christian anti-Halloweeners is that they completely miss the point that, although this Celtic festival pre-dated Christianity, it was almost immediately absorbed into the Christian (Catholic) calendar and has always been recognized int (although the Puritans weren’t too happy with it in England for a time, but then they weren’t happy with a lot of things).  Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day and tomorrow is All Souls’ Day.  Again, these days are a time to reflect on the spirit and its passing from this earthly life – and a time to pray for the dead.

All Souls Day in the Philippines
Filipinos honor their dead on All Souls Day (November 2)

What is wrong with honoring the dead?  The Mexicans (and others) do it every year at the same time – the Dia de Los Muertos – they are doing it right now, putting flowers and sweet things on the graves of their ancestors.  Sure, there are lots of skulls and macabre costumes, as there are in Hallowe’en, but it is a celebration and an honoring too.  Now, I do wish Jamaicans would honor their dead more.  If you look at “then and now” photos of Kingston’s May Pen Cemetery (the “now” being a wasteland) you would see what I mean.  Respect for those who have gone before us is a part of All Hallows’ Day and All Saints’ Day – it is a time of mysterious connection, when the spirit world draws closer to us.  A recognition of that world of spirits – that land of shadows.  And that’s the “scary” part.

Guisers in 2004
A group of modern day, well-disguised "guisers" in the North of England - a tradition that is being revived in some areas.

Where does the dressing-up part come from, and the trick or treating?  Well, they are both connected and both originate from the belief that if you disguise yourself, those spirits won’t recognize you.  Again, it goes back hundreds of years – it is not some silly new-fangled American thing.  Trick or treating was called “guising” (as in disguise) and it is even mentioned in Shakespeare.   And it has been a tradition in Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall (going back to the Celts again of course) for hundreds of years.

Now, my Christian friends always talk about the “Satanic” nature of Hallowe’en.  But where does that come from?  I grew up with Hallowe’en, and never was there any mention of “Old Nick” in that context (that was my grandmother’s name for him – an English expression that dates from the seventeenth century).  He never came into the picture, nor does he in any of the Hallowe’en traditions that I know of (someone, please correct me if I’m wrong).

In fact, I have never heard so much talk of “Satan” as in Jamaica.  When something won’t work out, it is blamed on Satan.  I was rather startled when I first encountered his name in an everyday conversation, and I still do wonder why his name is recalled so often.  Even gangsters call themselves Satan from time to time – the baddest of the bad, I guess.  I think part of the confusion of Hallowe’en is the confusion of the “dark side” – the spirit world of ghosts, spirits, fairies and the like – with Satanism.  But why?  Jamaicans have their own incredible duppy stories too – the Rolling Calf sends shivers down my spine – but Satan doesn’t get mixed up in those legends.  But then, there is no Christian origin to those stories either.   All very complex.

Rolling Calf and Hooping Bwoy by Hasani Claxton
A vivid and imaginative portrayal of the very-disturbing Rolling Calf (minus the chains, however) and the Hooping Bwoy, his master, the cursed spirit of a former slave (I'm meeting him for the first time, myself)

 

And now for other Hallowe’en traditions, which you may or may not know.  One of our favorites at home was “apple bobbing,” the kind of thing they would do on TV game shows these days to get people to make a fool of themselves.  You had to kneel and grab an apple out of a bucket of water with your mouth, not using your hands.  Of course apples were in season at that time of year, and there were the toffee apples (or candy apples as they are called in the U.S.).  I remember as a child, in great fascination and excitement, watching my grandmother dipping the apples into the sticky, tawny-colored toffee, which she boiled up in a deep pan with dire warnings not to go anywhere near it.

Then there were the fancy-dress parties.  The whole point that the Jamaican Christians are missing – sadly – is that in fact, Hallowe’en is tremendous (and quite harmless) fun.  Their cries of “Satanism” and “evil” sound like killjoys.

We had fun.  I would spend weeks planning my costume (always home-made, by my long-suffering mother) and we would have noisy, boisterous parties, pretending to be someone else.  What kid doesn’t love dressing up?  It is empowering.  My parent would pretend to be scared by me and my raucous friends.  And we felt safe and secure in our masks and crazy headgear.  My best-ever costume was a scarecrow.

So please, give Hallowe’en a break.  Try to understand and respect a tradition that is hundreds – if not thousands – of years old.

A little more tolerance.  A little more understanding.

And remember there is the light, and there is the dark.   All a part of life.

 


16 thoughts on “Hallowed

  1. Great article and comments.I have great memories of Halloween in Glasgow. It wasn´t very commercialised then and our costumes were rudimentary but the night took on a special air that we all loved. Part of the excitement was being out in the night instead of tucked away indoors. My family were practising Catholics but our parish never spoke (spook?) out against it.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Maureen! No, when we celebrated it at home in London it wasn’t commercialized at all, really. But the excitement was definitely there – a sense of adventure! I think the tradition was kind of absorbed into the Catholic faith at some point in the very early days, so was never really disapproved of. The thing with Jamaica is that we have a lot of “fundamentalist” Protestants.

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  2. I love Halloween, and am more than happy to cede its origins to the Celts. (Ditto for Santa Claus coming from Sint Nikolaas or Saint Nicholas.) As you say, it’s all about FUN. Nothing satanic or dark about it, unless you’re someone who truly leans that way (in which case you probably don’t wait around for Halloween once a year). My son attended a Guy Fawkes party celebration on his US university campus this year and thoroughly enjoyed it! PS – love the changed look of your site.

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    1. I agree… Fun is the key – otherwise I don’t think these traditions wouldn’t have lasted over the years! Oh yes, I do miss Guy Fawkes Night, happy memories. How great that they had it on a U.S. university campus! (where is your son studying?) Traditions can be shared, why not? I am glad you like the look of the site – I plan to change the color and the photo soon (I always use my own photos and just crop them for the header… The current picture was taken in Montego Bay on a very stormy evening…) Thanks for your comments, Linda!

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  3. Glad Halloween is over and we can celebrate other wonderland holidays. 🙂 I’ve been out of the loop with power outages and conferences… now catching up on comments. TY! 🙂

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    1. I hope the power outages have gone… Yes, in fact tonight is another uniquely British festival, “Bonfire Night” or “Guy Fawkes Night” – celebrating Mr. Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament a few centuries ago! Coming so soon after Hallowe’en, it was even more excitement for us kids… fireworks galore! Welcome back to the loop, Elizabeth! 🙂

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  4. You see, every time I read something where someone is describing what Halloween is about, it is always the same info either described softly or harshly depending on the view of the person describing it. I personally cannot see anything having to do with drawing closer to spirits as anything to be happy about or to celebrate. It just could never make sense to me but you see, like the whole Santa Claus thing, I just shake my head at how Americans go on and allow some very ‘weird’ beliefs to be fun. Nothing fun in ghosts or ghoulish looking things as far as I am concerned. Anyway, thing about Jamaicans is that if we dont understand it or it is too different from us, we dont like it. That is where I say, we really need to learn a lesson in tolerance and respect from other people’s culture. At the same time, you have to appreciate where we coming from – you were socialised to accept this, it was the opposite for us.

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    1. I understand what you are saying… And I think I got all my facts right, but I was writing about the historical and cultural origins of an ancient festival that is at the core of a people’s beliefs… and of my own tradition and heritage. I respect your views on the subject but would really like to correct the misperception that this is a purely American festival… As you will note from my blog, its origins are Celtic and therefore it originates in the UK, where it is still celebrated of course. The American version is pretty much the same, just more “high profile” and of course like Valentine’s Day it is much more commercialized these days. And Santa Claus is also European in origin and of course very much celebrated across Europe… Yes, the real point of my blog was really that we should be more tolerant of each other’s culture and tradition. I find the ritual slaughter of animals (as in the Jewish and Muslim religions for example) very disturbing, but try to understand where it’s coming from. I think Jamaicans need to do that, rather than just rejecting something they find strange…

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  5. we often malign things we do not understand, for reasons we do not fully comprehend and we do it all in a state of ignorance.

    religion, especially organized religion, has this effect on otherwise, well thinking people. it distorts everything to fit its narrow and often blinkered perspective on life.

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    1. Absolutely. The world of spirituality is, to me, still a mysterious and uncharted territory – especially when it comes to supernatural phenomena. Yes, religious people often have to fit (force) these things that really cannot be explained into some kind of compartment (good vs evil) or they cannot deal with it. There are so many vague and shadowy things in life out there – to me, that’s what makes life so interesting. Yes, a state of ignorance is right.

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  6. Very interesting. Thanks for openin up my eyes on the history of the holiday. I don’t celebrate because I haven’t been raised in a situation where I’ve had much exposure to it, apart from TV and a few pumpkin-themed items from ‘foreign’.

    I do agree that Satan is way too popular here. Did you ever see that video of the Jamaican woman in a CVS in NY calling the security guard Satan and threatening to have God shut down the store. Unbelievable!!!

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    1. Wow Karee, I haven’t seen that video! That was exactly the kind of thing I was referring to. I was baffled by all of this when I first came to Jamaica! I realize not everyone has to actively celebrate each other’s traditions – but just that they recognize and tolerate them (and perhaps learn something about them). I do realize not many Jamaicans have been exposed to Halloween – it’s one of those things that somehow did not get transplanted here by the colonial masters… Yes, Halloween has an interesting and complex history. But some of its traditions have nothing at all to do with the dead, ghosts etc… Some of them are more of the “he loves me, he loves me not” variety! Thanks for your comment.

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  7. Ah, Christians. The early church either appropriated the traditions of others (a clever ploy to get the masses onside) or banned them outright (often with appalling levels of violence). Most modern day Christians are woefully ignorant of their own history and some (the evangelical lot) can be positively poisonous towards the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of others. Anything they don’t like is the work of the Devil. Same goes for fundamentalist Moslems, Jews, Hindus, etc. It’s like the Age of Reason never happened. Depressing. Live and let live, I say.

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    1. I totally agree. Jamaicans sometimes fall down rather badly when it comes to the “live and let live” philosophy. And I think the occasional diatribes I read in the paper are mainly from the fundamentalist variety of Christians. I find it depressing, too. It’s like after all these centuries no one has really learnt anything. Yes, the early church was actually rather clever at absorbing the Halloween tradition into All Saints etc and I think the Catholic Church is good at that. I’ve been to some Catholic festivals that are a weird mixture of the “pagan” older traditions merged with the Virgin Mary, etc. Sometimes I get the feeling that everything’s going backwards though… don’t you? Sigh. It’s getting late and I’m rambling… Thanks for your ongoing comments Jack, I do enjoy them!

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind comments. I don’t pay enough attention to my blog and wish I had more time for it, but I do so enjoy it. Please follow and keep reading and commenting! (I’m going to look up your blog now… as a fellow Celt!)

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