Folklore Features

Folklore Features

By Wanda Lou Willis

The season is nearly upon us when leaf covered yards are filled with headstones and skeletons. It is a time when witches and zombies and all things that go bump in the night suddenly appear from the darkness and walk through our neighborhoods. A glimpse of a headless horseman might be seen galloping through the night. Or, in your local graveyard sheet-draped ghosts can be seen weaving their way through and around the moon shadowed gravestones and monuments. Halloween!

October, when the tomato plants have withered and the frost is on the pumpkins. The crunching of dead leaves underfoot makes you think someone’s behind you. Looking over your shoulder you see mists swirling about like fluttering ghosts while the dark bare skeletal branches of trees eerily sway and wave at you in the breeze. On those cold nights in late October, you can almost feel how it might have seemed to early man, that the world was ending.

Though Halloween has become mainly a time for parties and pranks it is part of a three day Christian celebration, Hallowmass commemorating the departed. The celebration begins with October 31, All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween; All Saint’s Day, or All-Hallowmass celebrated on November 1; and ends with All Soul’s Day on November 2.

The early church probably created these days in an effort to put a Christian face on Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead. In Mexico, Spanish Conquistadors tried to impose Hallowmass on a festival of the dead already in place which then became the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Throughout time many cultures celebrate the dead. They all have at least one thing in common, the observance of a certain day or days set aside to honor those who have died.

Ancient Celts celebrated the beginning of their new year on Nov. 1, marking the harvest and the end of the summer and the beginning of the long dark winter months. Samhain was celebrated on the night before the new year began. This was a time when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead became indistinct.

Mischievous ghosts or fairies were blamed for crops dying. Legends sprang up around these unearthly visits. Many of which have survived to this day.

One of the many beliefs surrounding this period held that the dead could not cross over to the next world until Samhain.  In England it was feared and believed that on October 31 the ghosts of  people who would die during the next twelve months would be seen walking through the graveyards.

When visiting a cemetery this time of year there’s something about the slanting of the autumn light on the weathered headstones with the crumbling leaves chasing each other around their bases I find comforting and calming.

Standing in cemeteries you can’t help contemplating about the people the stones represent. The early Epitaphs often cautioned the reader of the foolishness of feeling immortal: 

Look on me as you pass by.

As you are now so once was I.

As I am now so you must be.

Prepare for death and follow me.

As society moved away from the Puritan idea of death as punishment and embraced the idea of an idyllic afterlife cemeteries became more park-like. Flowers, shrubs and shade trees were planted providing a pleasant atmosphere for walks and even picnics.

Cemeteries also provided an opportunity for stone carvers to artistically express themselves. Carefully and lovingly chiseling and polishing the stones. There were the skulls and crossbones of the 17th and 18th centuries; the willow trees, lilies, and soul’s heads of the 1800s. Finally, the elaborate carved cherubs and mourning figures of the Victorian age.

This Halloween plan to visit your local cemetery and think about this season of death and what it means to you. Read the names on the stones and wonder why when the days grow shorter we always feel the need to commune with the departed, to face the darkness, build fires and disguise ourselves so we are unknown.

Listen carefully for the sound of leaves crunching behind you. Look quickly. Was that a swirl of white disappearing into the bare, autumn trees?

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