Alternative Ways to Celebrate Halloween
The promise of bucketfuls of free sweets just for knocking on people's doors is overwhelmingly attractive to children, yet many of us parents feel a resistance to it - not only to the sugar overload, but to the feeling that we are being sucked into commercial exploitation based on a modern American invention. But guess what, there is evidence that the origins of Halloween were being celebrated by Pagans around 5000 years ago in Ireland, which sheds a whole new light on this festival of darkness.
2,500 years later, (still quite a hefty amount of time for establishing tradition!), the Celts arrived in Ireland, and it's from here that the folklore around the festival of 'Samhain' begins. This is where it starts to get exciting, and the fact that Halloween is such a big presence in our lives begins to make sense: the Celtic year ended at Samhain and the Celtic day began at sunset, which means that this festival was a really big deal for them - it was our equivalent of New Year's Eve, with a whole lot of mythical stuff thrown in!
So Where Do the Ghosts Come In?
Samhain, (pronounced 'sow-in', in case you were wondering), is the mid-way point between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, when the sky is at it's darkest and it's starting to get really cold. The Celts believed that the veil between this and the 'other' world was at its thinnest at this point, and that spirits were able to visit us at Samhain. Burial mounds were opened and places were laid at the table for family members that had passed. Offerings of appeasement were left outside for malevolent spirits that had not been invited.
And Why the Dress-Up?
Beginning as a means to scare the unwanted spirits away by being even scarier, over time it became traditional for members of the community to dress up and knock on people's doors so that they could give them their offerings. Inevitably this theatrical aspect of the festival became a source of creativity and increasingly fun over the centuries, as is evident when our children are planning their costumes and dressing up today.
But How Did Samhain Become Halloween?
1200 years ago the Christian Church moved the date of 'All Saints Day' to 1st November, thus incorporating the Pagan traditions of this time of year into their religious calendar. The old English word for saints was 'hallows', which made the 31st October 'All Hallows Eve'. Its significance is still one of a time of remembrance, and 200 years later 'All Souls Day' began to be celebrated on the 2nd November, in memory of all souls that had passed. In some countries it is traditional to light candles at graves and for beautiful processions to take place through cemeteries. Even though Ireland had long been a Catholic country, when the Irish moved to America during the 19th century they took a lot of Celtic traditions with them, and it is over there that Halloween grew into the huge event that we are familiar with today.
Samhain & Old Halloween Traditions
The knowledge of how long our ancestors have been celebrating this festival may make Halloween feel more acceptable to those that weren't so keen, but it doesn't necessarily make trick-or-treating - and all that sugar - any more appealing to parents. Thankfully there are other meaningful Samhain and all hallowed traditions that can be celebrated with children at this time of year.
Carve a Jack-o'-lantern
The origins of the carved pumpkins outside people's houses comes from the Celts using trails of lanterns to guide spirits back from their homes to their places of rest, and they were commonly made from turnips! Hollowing out a root vegetable is much harder work than using a pumpkin, but it's included in here as a suggestion because the results are so beautiful. Scrape out the insides of a turnip or swede until the walls are no more than 1cm thick, then use a sharp knife to create patterns on the outside by removing the outer layer of skin. The effect achieved is a warm glow coming through the yellow and purplish colours of your root vegetable, which feels extra special after all the effort.
Bake Soul Cakes
In medieval times it became customary for beggars to call at people's houses on All Saints and All Souls day, offering songs or prayers for loved ones that had passed away. The payment of one soul cake was the equivalent of one soul going to heaven, so they were made in great batches! Soul cakes are spiced currant biscuits or buns with a cross marked on the top - yummy, but we fear they would not meet the expectations of today's trick-or treaters. There's no reason why children can't enjoy making them though, blessing them with good wishes and distributing them amongst their friends.
175g butter, 125g sugar, 3 egg yolks, 400g plain flour, 50g almond flour, 2 tsp mixed spice, 100g raisins, splash of milk, 15 mins at 180 C.
Make a Besom Broom
Remembering that Samhain was the Celtic new year, there was lots of clearing going on. As well as whatever might have gone on inside, the perimeters of people's homes would be swept with a broom for protection. Making your own besom broom might be easier than you think, using twigs for the brush, a stick for the handle and some string to hold them together. Birch twigs would have been used as they symbolise purification and renewal, with a handle made from Hazel for wisdom.
Have fun getting pictures of your kids flying on their broomsticks by bending down and taking a photo when they jump.
Light a Fire
As well as the trails of lanterns, the Celts also lit up the night with huge bonfires, burning decaying vegetation and using the flames for protection rituals. Why not use your besom broom to rake some leaves and make a small fire with things you have cut back in your garden, to use as a focal point for your festivities? You could sing Autumn verses or roast apples and chestnuts. Under the careful supervision of adults children could make a wish for winter and throw a small stone into the fire. It may be cathartic for older children or teenagers to write a note of something they'd like to let go of and then let it burn in the fire.
Kraul Fire Bowls are ideal for this kind of occasion.
Think of the Fairies
Otherworldly visitors at Samhain also included fairies, and a whole array of mythical beings! The idea that Samhain or Halloween opens the door to the worlds of our imaginations gives us the option of moving away from scary things for our dress up ideas, making it more safely engaging for children of all ages.
Have a Feast
The Celts made sure that the last of their summer crops were harvested by Samhain, making it perfect timing for a feast. We have most foods available to us all year round now, but why not use Halloween as a chance to really celebrate seasonal vegetables? Even if that just means filling your bellies with pumpkin soup before setting out for some trick-or-treating.
Create a Memory Table
Rather than a shrine of sorts, you could create a 'memory table' in your home at this time of year. Use it as a place to put photographs of loved ones no longer with us, objects that remind you of them, crystals, candles and any other offerings that you feel moved to give. Children don't need to be invited to do this, but by witnessing you do it they can engage with it as much as they need. We can also look upon the opening of doorways at Samhain as a time when loved ones are able to receive messages from us, be that through words, drawings or the placing of a flower.
Understanding the meaning behind a festival enables you to relate to it in a way that's right for you, and make choices about the parts you would like to emphasise for your family. Really celebrating, rather than just joining in, means that there will naturally be boundaries around the way you choose to participate, stopping you from being swept along further than you might have liked. It's something you will be doing for yourself, not because the supermarket shelves are telling you to.
Of course we believe that crafting around any festival is a must, allowing you to take ownership through your own creativity. If you're looking for more ideas why not try our Spooky Spiders?