Friday, November 1, 2013

All Hallows Eve

by PJ Fitzpatrick*
Samhain - All Hallows' Eve - Halloween; we celebrate the festival in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, but the trappings of the contemporary celebration—dressing up in scary costumes, jack o’ lanterns, trick-or-treating—are all activities that speak to the gathering dark of autumn nights, far more than the long, light-filled, evenings of the southern spring.

A quick look at the festival's origins also points north. Halloween derives from the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was associated with harvest end and the passing of the year from summer into the dark and cold of winter. From what I have read, it also had elements of a “day of the dead,” when “the hungry ghosts” had to be placated with offerings of food. Even the bonfires of Guy Fawkes, a few days later, echo the bonfire tradition of Samhain…

In the Christian era, Samhain became the festival of All Hallows Eve, comprising first All Saints' and then All Souls' Day—but whether a harvest festival, a celebration of All Souls, or a feast of the dead, Halloween clearly belongs to the dying season of the year rather than to spring.

In that spirit, one of my all-time favorite Halloween stories is the Scottish tale of Tam Lin, and my favourite retelling is found in Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Armourer’s House (Oxford Children’s Library, 1951), in the Chapter titled “A Tale for Hallowe’en.”  Here’s a small sample to give you a feel for why, even though it’s very much a kids’ retelling, I think it’s well worth a read:

… Oh, but it was wild and lonely up there, with the larks singing in the wide skies, and the whaups crying, and the land dropping away from her feet to the blue hills of the Border Country. And all at once Janot was afraid, and just for a moment she thought that she would take the gold pin from her gown and leave it for a gift to the Fairy Kind, and go home quickly, as she had come. But she was not one to turn away from a thing because she was afraid; so she bent forward across the well-curb, and broke off a long wild-rose spray that arched above it. There were two pink blossoms upon the spray, and as she broke it off, the petals fell from one of them, as is the way of wild roses when their branch is shaken. She leaned forward to watch the five petals floating in the dark water, and there was her own face looking up at her from the depths—aye, and another face looking over her shoulder! A thin face it was, and dark enough to startle any maid.

For the time that it might take your heart to beat twice, Janot never moved. Then she turned slowly from the well-curb, still holding the rose-switch in her hand. Close beside her on the green-sward stood a brave young gallant, clad all in green, from his close-fitting hose to his feathered bonnet. And oh, but he was bonny, despite his black hair and his wan, dark face; there was a cleft to his chin and a quirk to his eyebrow, and the eyes of him were bright and grey …

… I am called Tam Lin,” said the young man, and, as he spoke, he doffed his bonnet to her so low that it swept the fern …”

So that’s a very small excerpt from one of my favourite Halloween stories. What 's yours?

* The etching in Jaransor, from The Heir of Night, from a series of images done by PJ Fitzpatrick who drew the Heir map, but the "feel" also suits the description of Carterhaugh: a "wild and lonely" place.

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