31 October 2011
It’s Hallowe’en again. Ok, so that’s maybe stating the obvious, and anyway, what does that have to do with museums? I’ve noticed that Hallowe’en has become quite a big thing here in Germany. Last time I lived here, it was virtually unknown, now there’s hardly a shop that hasn’t jumped in on the game. It’s pumpkins and movie inspired costumes all round, and looks very much like its been imported kit and caboodle from America. I wonder how many people here actually know about its cultural origin?
So, to get back to museums, I’ve also noticed lots more museums doing Hallowe’en events, though I don’t know if this has actually increased over the years, or whether it just seems like more because I now hear about everyone’s events on Twitter. But it reminded me of a discussion on the GEM (Group for Education in Museums) discussion list several years back, where some felt it inappropriate for museums to be celebrating Hallowe’en because it was seen as promoting devil worship. At the time, I’d responded with my Scottish Ethnologist hat on, which went something like this:
Many of our modern Hallowe’en customs and derivations of them stem from the Celtic celebration of the New Year, which falls on 1st November, Hallowe’en thus being the Celtic New Year’s Eve. The Celtic year is divided into two halves or seasons: a light half and a dark half. The beginning of the Celtic New Year is also the beginning of the dark half of the year and of a new cycle (Beltane, on 1st May, marks the beginning of the light half). Samhain or Samhuinn as it is called (there are different pronunciations in the various Celtic languages) literally means summer’s end.
Naturally, as with our modern New Year’s Eve, it was associated with celebrations and customs, as well as also being one of the Celtic fire festivals of which there are several throughout the Celtic year to mark various calendar customs. Night time was always a time when the veil between the world of the humans and the world of the spirits was thinner, and Samhain was one of the nights in the year which was regarded as a liminal space where the veil was at its thinnest. It was believed that both spirits and humans were able to pass over the threshold on that night, and traditional folklore holds many tales of spirits returning to visit their kin, and the doors to the “fairy realm” being opened. As with our New Year Eve’s, divination was common at Samhain, and customs and rituals were performed to thank the gods for a good harvest, and to seek protection for livestock, homes and families throughout the dark half of the year.
And so these old customs and traditions gave us many of the games and customs still practised at Hallowe’en today, though often out of context, as well as the idea of having bonfires and candle lit lanterns, and dressing up as supernatural beings. But far from devil worshipping or any of the like, the opposite was in fact the case: protection was being sought from evil spirits, and safekeeping from any harm throughout the harsh winter months, alongside celebrating and giving thanks for the end of a fruitful year and commemorating the dead. Later on with the rise of Christianity, as with so many other pagan festivals, Samhain was “incorporated” into Christian customs – Hallowe’en literally means Hallow’s Eve, i.e. the eve of All Hallows Day, or All Saints Day as it is now called. But, of course, as with e.g. Christmas and Easter, the old pagan customs didn’t die out.
In many places that celebrate Hallowe’en it has been reduced to dressing up and the Americanised “Trick or Treat”, but its origins actually go back to the old Celtic festival and its customs. In several places pagan communities in Scotland still celebrate Samhain/ Hallowe’en in the traditional way today.
So, there you have it. As with the TV, telephone and Tarmac, yet another thing the Scots can take credit for^^
I, for one, am quite thankful that the American pumpkin has replaced the more traditional turnip lantern as it takes just an evening rather than a whole week to carve and you don’t do yourself nearly as much damage!