Halloween celebrations are rooted in ancient magic


NEW YORK – The hum of our lives is sated in magic. And its color is orange.

Orange of the lanterns, shining in the night, lighting the pathway for the fading cluster of summer’s fireflies. Or the little goblins and fairies that line up on the doorstep for a trick or treat.

There is nothing muted about the departure of a sunset-cloaked October.

Red damasks and topaz flow in drifts of drowsy leaves as the aging willow, the omniscient poplar and the towering maple turn from deep auburn to mustard yellow in bronzed sunlight.

As heavy curtains of gale swoop through the ancient swamps of forests, the owls hoot in a chilling serenade. Tu-whit, tu-hoo.

Far in the distance, the chapel bells call out as night descends on the city’s fading murmur. The moon waxes between a silver thread and a buoyant gold in a jocular pageant.

As the earth swiftly spins towards the close of the year, the seasons mark the crossing of autumn to winter.

And bewitched, we humans cry!

All things green are suddenly bright, at sunset, mists are here, then there,” sings an antique Chinese poem, “Magnolia Enclosure.”

Since the dawn of civilization, the changing of seasons has held the potency of divine enchantment in its ephemeral threshold.

On November’s eve, it is believed that the thin veils that hide the hidden whorls from the visible are shred as shadows lengthen and nights loom longer and thicker in the Northern Hemisphere.

And it is possible a great presence is moving near me / I have faith in nights,” reaffirms the great Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.

The long drawn-out nights portend the eventual end of long days of labor in the fields. And who but John Milton could capture its languid music in the pastoral poem “ L’Allegero”:

while the ploughman near at hand,

whistles o’er the furrowed land,

and the milkmaid singeth blithe,

and the mower whets his scythe,

and every shepherd tells his tale

under the hawthorn in the dale.

October lends itself to nature-inspired celebrations of the abundant harvest, the borderline between dark and light, the remembrance of the dead and the start of a new cycle.

Halloween is not simply the invention of American folklore and superstition but its origins are stated to have their echo in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween) which marked the celebration of a successful harvest.

In agricultural repertoire, it was a time when the cattle were led back from summer pastures into the barns for a safe and secure winter.

The word Samhain is but a Gaelic word for “summer’s end” – the sunset of the last day of October was the beginning of a merriment that would last till sunset the next day.

A man dressed as Samhain participates in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in Manhattan, New York. Photo: Reuters.

It was the long awaited day of magic when the strife of this world would finally bear its fruition.

“Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country,” writes the American essayist Anais Nin.

But no, not such poetry for the early Celts, however.

They practiced divination through bobbing of apples and disguised themselves with costumes to avoid harm from wandering spirits. To ward off the cold of the looming night, they lit bonfires and jumped over them for good luck. Yes, not unlike the famed leprechaun.

The Samhain festival gradually transited to a more secular festival of Halloween when Christian missionaries transformed the religious rituals of the Celts and subdued their elves, fairies and gnomes

But the ancient rituals of leaving sweets on doorsteps to appease mischievous spirits were still carried over into modern customs.

Many of the rituals also incorporated taking the last leaves and blossoms of the natural world and placing them in a sacred circle or an olden grove to invoke the way into a new beginning.

Through music, prayers for the ancestors and storytelling, the feast of harvest was opened and closed with spoken blessings.

It was also an acknowledgement of darkness that dwells along with the light, of the unknown with the known, the invisible with the visible.

It was simply a matter of faith.

Meanwhile, in my tiny world even as the shadows loom over the earthen fields and then spin out, I keep my eyesight steadfast onto the light.

Slivers of light hitting the crest of waves on the beach or pools of gold warming the corn thistles in the corner of the field.

And in the early morning light, if I wake up to the early crooning of the birds, I see iridescent wands slithering across the floor, illuminating a slight bend of the living room. And I know it is nothing less than magic.

For nothing can stop the light from breaking in.

“The darkness is no darkness with you, O Lord, ..the darkness and light to you are both alike,” reads Psalm 139:12.

And the autumn winds, too, carry the words of the song in its flight, for it bears the face of light.

Nights when the moon is soft and large on the horizon, an anonymous Chinese poem comes alive every time a sequestered fog droops low over tree-tops,

This morning our boat left the orchid bank and went out through the tall reeds. Tonight we will anchor under mulberries and elms. You and me, all day together, gathering rushes. Now it is evening, and see, we have gathered just one stalk.”

Till next spring, through the snow and cold winds, I shall keep the little boats of light, burning on the threshold. And wait for the cherry blossoms to fasten onto their dreams.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)



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