Halloween, frequently seen as the herald of winter, is a fascinating merger of Celtic, Roman, and Christian practices, resulting in a complex tapestry of Irish history. This festival represents a unique liminal zone where many beliefs and practices collide, standing, as it does, at the juncture between autumn and winter, symbolising not only the change of seasons but the movement from vibrant growth and harvest to senescence and dormancy. It's a moment when the line between the living and the dead is perceived to be thin, creating a sense of a liminal space, a space that is neither here nor there, that is betwixt and between, like the centre of a crossroads.
On Halloween night, people dress up in costumes that often conceal their genuine identities. This transformative act blurs the distinction between self and other, strengthening the idea of a liminal state. Trick-or-treating entails crossing thresholds between houses, representing a figurative movement between two areas and so expressing the nature of life being betwixt and between this world and another one. From the famous jack-o'-lanterns to other divination games, Halloween has a rich tapestry of mythology and superstitions. Many of these customs entail rituals that are only performed during this time period, emphasising the holiday's liminal aspect.
This time of year is also characterised by festivities that honour the dead around the world. These festivals serve the twin aim of honouring and remembering people who have passed away, as well as offering an opportunity for festivity and joy. For example, the Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, observed in Mexico and Mexican communities worldwide, entails the construction of ofrendas (altars) to honour lost loved ones. Obon is a Buddhist practise in Japan that involves families visiting graves, burning lanterns, and engaging in Bon Odori, a traditional dance. Meanwhile, Undas, or Araw ng mga Patay, is a Filipino practice in which relatives visit their loved ones' graves, clean and repair tombstones, and offer prayers and flowers. These various practices all serve as poignant reminders that death is an ever-present component of life, emphasising the inevitable end while emphasising the regeneration of life.
One may look at a lot of these festivities at Halloween, especially the hiding of one’s true identity behind a mask as a way of avoiding the proximity of death, yet in Ireland, many of our funeral traditions celebrate death as being part of life and not something to be hidden behind a mask.
The wake is one of the most characteristic Irish funeral customs. This is a time for reminiscing and telling stories about the deceased's life. The open coffin not only allows for a final farewell, but also emphasises that death is a natural part of life.
Another old custom is to stop the clock when someone dies, symbolising the stoppage of their heartbeat and alerting others to the presence of death in the house. It was usual to set the coffin on chairs before transferring it to the hearse when a person was waked in the house. These chairs were not put back upright until after the funeral.
The route to the cemetery was typically long and winding, following an east-to-west path, an homage to ancient Celtic beliefs in which nature played an important role. This direction, known as "a deiseal," represents the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth by mimicking the passage of the sun. Similarly, the coffin is carried to the grave in a sunwise direction, from east to west, serving as a sad reminder that everyone goes through the journey from birth to death.
Other traditions related with Halloween include visiting graveyards to pay tribute to the deceased. All of these traditions emphasise the journey from summer to winter and from life to death.
In terms of health, these traditions incorporate the concepts of death and dying into the fabric of life, removing the façade of endless youth, vitality, and vigour. This Halloween, let us reflect on Ireland's numerous customs and recognise how they promote our overall well-being in our understanding of life.
This is also an opportunity to begin the new year by looking after your health through the use of plant medicine, rituals and spiritual growth. All these areas of care are addressed in my course, Health and Healing in the Irish Calendar Year and serve as a foundation and template for developing your own unique style of health care.