Monday 4 November 2013

The Day of the Dead

Halloween is a Celtic Festival, and based on the Celtic calendar. It's the greatest of the four main festivals, marking the start of Winter. I want to tell you why that is the greatest of the festivals, but first, I need to tell you something about the Celtic day. It's simple. It ends at sunset. Not midnight. Sunset. That also means that the day actually begins just after sunset, as well. As the sun dips below the horizon, one day ends and the next begins. The Celtic calendar day begins with the darkness of night.

Now back to why Halloween is the most important of the four festivals. The four festivals fell on the interstices between the seasons. The seasons are based around the solstices and equinoces. Let's start with winter. It lasts for three months, centred around frosty midwinter's day, the shortest day of the year (that's December 21 in the northern hemisphere).

Spring also lasts for three months and is centred around the vernal equinox, the day when it is light for 12 hours and dark for 12 hours, which is March 20th. What is the day that is halfway between those two centres, and marks the interstice between those two? It is February 3 And don't forget, that day actually starts at dusk on February 2. This day was celebrated as the day on which we left the cold winter behind, and marched into spring. . Originally known to the Gael (the Celts of Scotland and Ireland) as Imbolc or Imbolg, it's now conflated with the Christian saint Brighid's day and Candlemas. It is still traditionally the day when spring begins in Ireland.

The other fire festivals were calculated in the same way. The Beltane festival is now celebrated as May Day almost universally (but no longer in Ireland!) halfway between the Vernal Equinox and midsummer's day, the summer solstice. Lughnasa or Lúnasa marks the end of summer and the beginning of the harvest (and at one time the celebrations included the Tailteann Games, the Olympic Games of the Gael), and Samhain marks the end of the harvest time and the beginning of winter. Oíche Shámhna in Irish Gaelic. Samhain's night. Halloween.

I mentioned that these were fire festivals, almost by-the-bye; in passing; but they were fire festivals, all right. They were interstitial celebrations, held in the gap between one time and another, and the light of the fires purified that gap. Imbolc: the festival of candles. Beltane, the festival of fires (it seems to have been translated in Ireland to St John's eve, near midsummer, nowadays), when bonfires are lit on hills and on beaches, and hearth fires would be doused and renewed from the bonfires. Lughnasa, when the first corn is harvested, ground, and baked on the hearth. And Samhain, Halloween. More bonfires.

Especially at Halloween and on St. John's eve, bonfires burn from dusk until dawn. Young men and women still jump through them at the end of the evening, through the flames and over the embers (or occasionally miss their step and end up in Accident & Emergency).

These festivals were held in the gap between times, and the Halloween festival fell on three gaps: the moment between one day and the next; the crack between one season and the next; and the interval between one year and the next. Because just as the Celtic day begins in the darkness of the dusk after the sunset of the previous day, so the Celtic year begins with the darkness of Winter. In these three apertures in time, worlds can open. The souls of the dead might come from their plane of existence to ours. Hence the purifying fires and bonfire leaping and general divilment. It is the start of the day of the dead.

As you might remember, my Pandaren monk has been stuck for a year and a day in the gap between our world and the mists surrounding the great turtle's back on which all Pandaren begin their adventures. Poor Paoquan was faced with having to help the Yaungol (they call themselves Tauren) to progress beyond her level 10 story on the concealed island that is Shen-zin Su's back.

She cannot. Every time I've tried to find an alternative understanding of this story, or an alternative way of advancing Paoquan, I have failed. This Halloween, I hoped she might leap through the flames, through the void between her old dilemma and her new future, might with one bound be free. She did not. She fell into the underworld, into the abyss of lost souls. Never more will I see her. 

Edit: What's this? By the cleansing power of the summer flames, Paoquan returns!

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