At this time of year people all over the UK are lighting fires and setting off fireworks, there may also have been some trick and treating going on, and the baking of soul cakes, treacle toffee and parkin. The origins of all of this is much disputed.
The Celts celebrated their New Year at this time of year with their Samhain festival, we now think of that as being the 31 October but given that our current calendar has only been in use since the 1750s (in the UK) it could have been on any day at this time of year. It was more likely to have been linked to the moon and night time* hours. All the Celtish festivals were celebrated on the Eve, which is how this festival may have transitioned over time to All Hallows Eve and then Halloween.
This was a time for communicating with your dead ancestors, paying your respects, they were often perceived as hungry and in need of nourishment, places would be laid at the table so that they could join the feast. A spirit of the dead invited to such a feast was a geist, a german word and the route of the words ghost and guest. It is thought this gave route to the Christian festival All Souls Night. Celebrating on the eve meant that this time belonged neither to the Old Year or the New it was 'in between' a time when the dead could pass from one world to the another along with Faeries, Elves and other mischief makers. It was only safe to go out in disguise......
It is a time when we are heading into the dark (in the Northern Hemisphere), the earth dies and rests waiting for the returning sun to germinate its seeds. Mother Earth has often been represented as a goddess, it is thought she was represented in black at this time of year. Over time the dark nature of the goddess became an object of fear and for many years suffered persecution, witch hunts, or could be the scapegoat for disasters, natural or otherwise.
All this mischief and evil spirits roaming the earth needed warding off. In some places Rowan was used or a offering of food to appease them, or carving turnips into faces and putting candles inside.
Fires have most likely been lit for centuries at important times of the year not only as a light in the darkness but as a means of rekindling and celebrating. It is thought that all fires were extinguished at Samhain and new ones kindled from a main ceremonial fire. If this ritual continued for centuries it could have become connected with Guy Fawkes, a man who was part of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London in 1605. We know for certain that parliament decreed in 1606 that November 5 should be kept as a day of thanksgiving for lives spared. The burning of a guy on the bonfire is a Victorian addition.
Over this weekend we have Remembrance Sunday, the nearest Sunday to the date of the Armistice of the First World War. A time to remember all those who have fought and died for peace in our country. Services are held, wreaths laid and a two minute silence observed at 11am the time of the armistice. As a child there would be many veterans of WW1 at these services, now they all dead and we are approaching a centenary of the end of the War. The technologies available now mean that we have many records which will, we hope, survive for many a year. But like all the traditions celebrated at this time of year will it change over time particularly after many generations?
Whatever the root or origin of a festival, they will always change through time, a melting pot of influences bringing people together to celebrate. The changes they have seen over time seem all the more poignant in a year of such terrible unrest in the world. Persecution is a dreadful human trait. There is a thread of remembering running through this time of year, pulling all these festivals from the past, present, and hopefully the future, together. A time of reflection.
We have been remembering our ancestors who are no longer with us. My children have sadly lost a grandparent young, this is an important time of year for us to bring his memory alive. To talk about the happy times we had together, look at pictures and treasured objects. This is not something we did a few years ago, as he was still with us, so we have created a new tradition in our family, born of a need to keep memories alive. It seems natural then that our ancestors through time would have wanted to do the same.
* The Romans recorded the Celts as measuring their calendar in nights rather than days