A day to honour ancestors

Halloween is based on a Celtic festival of ancestor worship.

Halloween is now a fun occasion that has forgotten to honour our ancestors.

Today is the day of ghouls and witches; a day of fun for children and adults in USA, which has only recently become similarly commercialised in the UK, though the focus is on children.  The Christian Church and Hollywood paints this day as Satanic and evil.  The majority call this day Halloween.

The commercial version of Halloween that is expressed in Europe and North America is based upon the ancient Celtic festival called Samhain.  This day is the last great feast of the Celts, it marks the start of Winter.

In our modern society it is hard to appreciate the hard existence of the ancients, living on the edge of life and death.  Winter was a time of cold, sickness and hunger; a community through stupidity or misfortune was as good as dead if they had not prepared for winter. This was a time of uncertainty and insecurity, when as well as physical preparations the goodwill of ancestors and archetypes were sought to guide and protect the Celtic community through winter.  Just as the recent Hurricane Sandy caused havoc and death, so the ancient Celtic peoples were even more vulnerable to the strife of nature.  Many Celtic stories exist along the lines of the Celtic feast being stolen by the spirit of winter at the last feast of Samhain.

In modern society we exist in a material sterile world, but the ancient Celts existed in a world where the material and spiritual worlds co-existed and often overlapped.  This is a society of animism, a belief that all things had a spirit; and shamanism, the ability of individuals to talk and walk with those spirits; the Celtic Druid was an advanced form of shaman.

A third aspect is how we treat our ancestors and children not yet born.  When family die, they are buried and often take no further part in our lives beyond the occasional reflection and mention; within two generations family members are forgotten.  Nobody today takes action and decisions taking into account the honouring and benefit of future generations decades into the future.  The ancient Celts saw themselves as a living expression of all their ancestors and the children to come, all decisions and actions took into account the ancestors and future generations.  Ancestors were both consulted and honoured.

Celtic customs to do with ancestor worship may in modern eyes be considered raw and morbid, practices that would cause a Christian priest to faint.  Every Celtic community had its shrine, a place where they kept bone relics of important tribal or family members, often the skull.  At Danbury hillfort in the UK  the archaeologists think there were two buildings containing relics at the centre of the fort.  At Samhain there is a huge feast arranged, the community gathers together and seating at the feasting place are set aside for the ancestors to join. The relics are on display and perhaps “seated” too.  There are games, contests, song and story telling.  Gifts are exchanged, food and drink flow.  The ancestors are consulted in a form of predicting the future; their protection and guidance requested.  The songs, stories and acting honoured the ancestors, entertained the community, educated the children, and encouraged the kings and warriors to earn their places amongst the stories in living life.

It is sad really that what is now celebrated as Halloween is an empty commercialised shadow far removed from the purposeful and beneficial festival it once was.  I won’t celebrate this day, it marks instead the start of nearly three months of solid planning for the year ahead.


14 responses to “A day to honour ancestors

  1. An excellent breakdown of the origins. Sadly, like all the festivals, commercialism has run rife and ruined the meanings.


  2. There are people out there that will ruin anything to make money.

  3. As a lover of origins, I did not know completely about the origins of Hallowe’en. I didn’t know that it was rife with homage to ancestors and the like. Thank you for the revelation.

  4. Thank you for this post! I didn’t know about the origin of Halloween, I am glad to understand now; I know I will think of it and teach my kids about it for next time ….

  5. We live in a time where we have ‘advanced’ far enough that inclement weather and the seasons barely affect our daily, weekly, or monthly actions… and perhaps we should be thankful for this.
    It is all too easy to be sad for the demise of these ancient ceremonies, but I think we should learn from the lessons within; the new lessons that are relevent today.
    I really like the bit where you said ‘The ancient Celts saw themselves as a living expression of all their ancestors ‘… it resonates with me.
    I have felt for a long time that we should have a respect for all of our ancestors, because prior to procreation they managed to avoid getting squashed, burned, eaten, shredded, castrated, extinct’ed, drowned, frozen, etc… this includes those all the way back beyond the first human… right back to the first primate, the first mammal, the first invertebrate… and so on…
    Perhaps what really needs to happen is for all these old customs to be re-visited and re-defined in order to make sense today… but I believe that we should make sure that our ancestors are not forgotten…
    Without this, they will eventually be lost forever.

    Nice post. Thanks for the education.

    • Our ancestors hold a combined life experience of tens of thousands of years of lives lived, that wisdom is there for us to learn and use in new ways in our own lives. Thanks for another insightful comment.

  6. Loved this post Alex.
    You know we still have rituals honouring the dead and I must admit to being grossed out.Maybe I need to do a rethink.Thanks for the push.

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