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By Pat Dial
Kaieteur News – Some of our members have asked us to carry a piece on ‘Halloween’ rather than ‘All Hallows’ or ‘All Saints Day’. We will touch on both. ‘All Hallows Day’ or ‘All Saints Day’ was long celebrated in Guyana as a Church festival but Halloween is an import from the USA which made its appearance here much after World War II and this was due to the spread of American culture and the scores of thousands Guyanese who have emigrated to America or have visited the country.
Though today ‘Halloween’ is regarded as an American holiday, its roots lie in Europe from where it was brought by Irish immigrants. In the pre-Christian Celtic Culture, 31st October was regarded as the day which marked the beginning of the onset of the colder,darker months of Winter and when Society prepared itself for its privations. It was also regarded as a day when there was a very thin line between light and darkness and so the Druids, the ancient Celtic priests, used the day to remember and communicate with the souls of relatives and ancestors and to leave food for them.
But the nature of the day also allowed for the invasion of evil supernatural beings to the Earth and to terrorize human beings. Such beings include witches, evil black cats, devils, evil spirits and ghosts and goblins.
To ward off the evil beings, people built large bonfires, that made as much noise as they could, dressed themselves in the most weird clothes they could imagine so as to frighten the spirits, and kept vigil until the dawn of November 1. At the first rays of the Sun, all the supernatural beings disappear and calm and peace once again envelop the Earth and the priests could invoke the Gods. The Celts and in particular, the Irish called this day ‘Sanwain.’ Other European peoples observed days similar to ‘Sanwain’ on 31st October.
In the third and fourth centuries, Christianity began to penetrate the Celtic lands and to make conversions to the new Faith easier, Christianity co-opted those customs and areas of the pagan religions which did not conflict with Christianity. Thus ‘All Hallows’ or ‘All Saints Day’ was moved from May to 1st November as a counter to Halloween and also to offer peace, calm and protection to people who had gone through the harrowing experience of ‘Sanwain’. In this process ‘Sanwain’ became Halloween, that is, Hallow e’en, the evening of ‘All Hallows Day.’
‘All Hallows Day’ was so named because it honoured all the 9000 plus canonized saints as well as those saints who were not canonized. The presence of these blessed souls brought peace, calm, goodness, freedom from fear and happiness to the world. This was the antithesis of ‘Sanwain’ or ‘Halloween’.
When ‘Halloween’ was adopted in America, it became purely celebratory and shorn of any serious supernatural or spiritual aspects. It was a time of partying when children and adults dressed in the weirdest costumes they could imagine and homes were decorated with the Halloween motifs and their were sometimes bonfires. Children regarded it as their holiday when they could dress up in weird costumes, play pranks on each other and adults, eat as much as they could and go about the neighbourhood demanding “A trick or a treat” when they were given chocolates and other sweets. The most well known symbol of American ‘Halloween’ is the ‘Jack o’ Lantern’ which is created mostly by children: A pumpkin was scooped out, the gourd was cut into a face and a light was put in the gourd, lighting up the eyes, mouth and nose, creating a frightening face. Though it may be unduly lengthening this offering, many readers may be interested in knowing the origin of ‘Jack o’Lantern’. Below is one of the most common traditions of Jack’s origin.
Jack was a criminal who committed all the known crimes and he was always drunk. He paraded the streets with a lantern on ‘Halloween nights’ and one such night he met the Devil who had come to take him to Hell. Jack asked the Devil to permit him to have another drink before he took him and the Devil agreed so they went off to a pub. After many drinks, Jack, who had no money to pay, asked the Devil to transform himself into a coin which Jack promptly put into his pocket, stole a crucifix from a nearby patron and with it imprisoned the Devil. Jack let him go after he had promised to give Jack another year. The Devil returned after a year and Jack suggested that the best place to depart was from the cemetery so they went to the cemetery where Jack easily got a crucifix and with it again held Satan prisoner. He released him on the promise that he would report to Hell in a year. During the year Jack tried to enter Heaven but was refused. He tried Hell where the Devil refused to admit him, throwing a piece of hellfire into his lantern. Jack was thus destined to wander the streets with his lantern for eternity.
The celebration of ‘Halloween’ in Guyana has so far been low keyed. Some wealthier families would have children’s fancy dress parties and there would be a few public balls catering for the well off, often patronized by the Diplomatic Corps. These balls would be fancy dress and the Georgetown Club used to be a popular venue. With the expansion of the Oil Industry, and Guyanese society becoming more cosmopolitan, the popularity of ‘Halloween’ celebrations is bound to grow.
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