A Short History of Holiday Traditions, Part 2

Okay. So we got as far as Easter yesterday. I know I skipped over quite a few things that are tied into Easter, like Lent and Good Friday and Ash Wednesday.  Rest assured, I didn’t forget about them. To put it rather bluntly: they’re just not that important. They, much like the Easter Bunny, are sort of societal vermiform appendixes. They once had meaning, but it’s changed and now we keep them around more or less out of habit.

Moving on.

Samhain aka Hallowe’en aka All Hallows Eve. Yes, I know. It’s roundly rejected by horrified Christians as a night of demonic influence, but it’s still a religious holiday. What would a religion be without a demon to point to and use to scare the masses?

Samhain (pronounced Sowen, not Sam Hane) and Halloween are now woven together as one holiday, the traditions of both making the whole. In Ireland, where Samhain originated, it was the festival celebrating the end of the harvest, and originally translated to “end of Summer [season].”  According to Wiki:

Traditionally, Samhain was time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter. This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock.[3][4][13]

Bonfires played a large part in the festivities celebrated down through the last several centuries, and up through the present day in some rural areas of the Celtic nations and the diaspora. Villagers were said to have cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. In the pre-Christian Gaelic world, cattle were the primary unit of currency and the center of agricultural and pastoral life. Samhain was the traditional time for slaughter, for preparing stores of meat and grain to last through the coming winter. The word ‘bonfire’, or ‘bonefire’ is a direct translation of the Gaelic tine cnámh. With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit its hearth from the common flame, thus bonding the families of the village together. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes the cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires, as well.

I’m having difficulty figuring out exactly how a harvest festival came to be viewed as “evil” and “the work of the devil” from the Irish custom. Let us move on to the “Dia de los Muertos,” Day of the Dead, as it’s celebrated in Mexico. This, I can at least understand if not agree with.

The Day of the Dead is a rather sweet holiday that got misunderstood by knee-jerk reactionaries. It’s all about honoring ancestors. That’s done in every culture at some point and is still valid in many countries. The church saw this and reacted in a predictably horrified and histrionic manner. It was wicked. It was worshiping ghosts. EVIL!! AAAAAARGH! What, oh WHAT to do? I know! All Saints Day! It had worked with those obstreperous Irish. Well. It worked and it didn’t. Dia de los Muertos is still celebrated, it just has a more Catholic flavor.

Thanksgiving. I need to clear this up. There are two schools of thought on Thanksgiving. One is that because it is about giving thanks to god for making it through the really nasty New England winter it is therefore religious. On the other hand, it’s not celebrated anywhere else by any other Christians, and is viewed by the other school as a purely patriotic holiday like 4th of July. Yes, I’m probably biased in my atheism. But since it is celebrated by EVERYONE in my country regardless of religion or creed, I view it as a secular holiday that is more along the lines of St. George’s Day (Britain) than anything else. Except without the dragon.

And we are brought full circle to Christmas. Which, when you get right down to it, is the latest in a long line of holidays celebrating the end of the dark and the return of the light. So. Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukhah, Joyous Yule, Happy Solstice…whichever may be appropriate. Enjoy the season, whatever your personal reason. The sun really will come up tomorrow.

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One response to “A Short History of Holiday Traditions, Part 2

  1. Pingback: - Are You Riled Up? - » Blog Archive » A Short History of Holiday Traditions, Part 2 « Left Coast Librul …

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