29 Oct 2009

The True Meaning of Halloween

Halloween is much celebrated but little understood. Living, as I do, in Japan and being called upon, as I often am, to explain Western customs, I have gradually deepened my knowledge of this unique pagan festival.

At first I told Japanese friends and students that it was actually the eve of Holy Day (Holy or Hallow Eve, therefore Hallow E'en) and part of the Christian calendar. But this explantion never really satisfied me or them. After all, how could that account for all the ghosts, pumpkins, witches, and vampires?

Next I told them it was a kind of gaijin O-Bon, the Japanese festival held in the middle of August when the spirits of the dead come back to Earth. This was a much more satisfactory explanation but imcomplete. It didn't explain why the dead in Western countries chose to come back on the night before November.

The key to understanding and explaining Halloween is to relate it to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, traditionally held on November the 1st, which was later Christianized as Holy Day. Samhain was actually New Year's Day for the ancient Celts as their year was based on the argricultural cycle that naturally comes to an end with the harvest and the emptying of the fields in September and October.

The idea that Halloween is New Year also helps us to understand the return of the dead. New Year's Day represents a break in the fabric of time/space, creating a temporary portal through which the dead can briefly return from the other world. By comparing Halloween to the Japanese O-Bon and New Year, not only can you make Japanese people understand the true meaning of Halloween, but you can also understand it better yourself.

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