Last Friday, Oct. 26, was the passing of the Hunter’s Moon, the first full moon after the Harvest Moon, which, according to pre-Christian Celtic folklore, marks the end of summer.
Ancient pagan Celts designated this time in the season as the time to take stock of supplies, slaughter livestock for winter stores and burn the carcasses in a massive bonfire. The event was known to them as the Festival of Samhain, which translated from modern Gaelic means "end of summer."
According to some historians, it was through the practice of livestock slaughtering during a time in the year which was regarded as the end or death of summer that led the ancient Celts to the belief that during the last day of summer, the boundary between the world of the living and the realm of the dead became obscured, giving those who had already passed on, re-entry into the world of the living through burial mounds.
To outsiders looking in, this festival may have given the appearance of ritual animal sacrifices, due partly to the overtly religious significance of the end of summer and the religious practices that accompanied the end of the harvest season. But to the ancient Celts, at least as far as the slaughtering practices were concerned, it was simply a means of survival.
Over the centuries, ancient Celtic lore became intermingled with Roman and Christian mythology to become more commonly known as All Hallows Eve or in Gaelic, Hallowe’en.
Fast forward a couple of millennia to twentieth century America and the story has changed a bit. Celtic traditions took root in the new world after some two million Irish people immigrated to America during the potato famine of 1845-49.
However, the advent of the refrigerator coupled with mass production and the importing of foods has eliminated the need for communities to band together at summer’s end to slaughter livestock en masse, erect a giant bonfire out of animal carcasses and dance around it whilst holding a chicken and chanting to invoke spirits of the dead. But this fact doesn’t mean modern Halloween has been completely devoid of meaningful rituals. They have simply morphed into something that conforms more to modern culture.
Basic necessities being a given to most modern Westerners, practitioners within the modern religious paradigm have modified rites that were once meant as an appeal to the gods for survival into what can now only be termed as worshipping at the altar of self indulgence. And to children, the most dutiful practitioners of venerated Halloween observances, this can mean only one thing: candy.
Adopted in the US sometime during the twentieth century, trick-or-treating, the practice of dressing up as inhabitants of the underworld and going from door to door collecting candy from ones neighbors has become the second most popular holiday practice in American culture. However, in recent years, it has become the very same penchant for self indulgence that helped permanently weave trick-or-treating into the tapestry of Americana that is also proving to be its undoing.
Trick-or-treating nay-sayers are citing what has always been the most popular fun-killing reason among the terminally dull, safety concerns as their excuse for the new and growing practice of community members meeting together in a central location, often church parking lots, to exchange and take stock of candy supplies. Though they may claim that they are only acting in the best interests of the children to protect them from predators and other dangers looming beyond their doorsteps, what it really looks like is laziness masked as security.
Statistically, children are more likely to be abused physically, sexually or otherwise at home than by random strangers at large.
The new practice is called trunk-or-treating but given the emphasis on food in both ancient and modern Halloween customs; perhaps a better name would be junk-for-eating.
It’s true, the concept of parents lounging around on their oversized kiesters while kids roam a sectioned-off perimeter collecting candy rations from neighbors appears to be a mere placebo for conscientious parenting. It’s interesting to note a new similarity between emerging modern customs and those of the distant past.
Time will tell if trunk-or-treating in church parking lots will become a new amalgam of religion and harvest festivals. We’ll know it’s happening when bonfires once again become a part of the festivities.