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Trick or Treatise?

Move over, Wiccans--the Celts want to take Halloween back

By Jim Rendon

While everyone else is busy trying to sort the razors from the Milky Way bars in their children's annual booty, Moira Theriault will be hard at work rolling scones in treacle, procuring authentic British-style pigs in a blanket, and doing nothing to prepare for her upcoming stage performance.

"It's off the cuff," says Theriault. "A Scot just comes up and does it." Theriault's preparations and improvisations are all part of a ceilidh dance (prounounced KAY-lee), a festival celebrating Halloween the way it was done in Scotland 50 years ago, and the way the Celts may have done it a few thousand years ago.

She and a few friends will perform a skit conjuring up the Halloween she remembers from her childhood in Glasgow. Children, called guisers, would dress up in big baggy clothes and blacken their faces. Like trick-or-treaters, they knocked on a neighbor's door, but rather than extort goodies with threats, they would perform a poem or a song in exchange for candy. In addition to the skit, there will be plenty of authentic Scottish fiddle music and lots of dancing.

"Ceilidh simply means party," says Theriault, "but traditionally it was more like a drinking session set to music."

But this ceilidh is on a date that vies for meaning, especially here in California, where Latinos have Dia de las Muertos, school kids have candy orgies and some Christian denominations have a satanic gathering to wave their finger at. Now the Celts have decided to step in and try to take the blame for it all by claiming Halloween's original roots.

Why? Well, respect seems to top the list. "This is a legitimate cultural event," argues Dale Warner, a local attorney who is best known for his full-page ads targeting politicians and newspapers and for his self-proclaimed moniker "European-American." Warner wants a little cultural sensitivity injected into the annual debate about the value of Halloween.

According to Warner and other local Celts, Halloween is little more than a thinly veiled co-opt of an ancient Celtic tradition. As such, Warner says, it should be treated more like Cinco de Mayo than a leftover satanic ritual. The Celts believed that on Nov. 1, their New Year's Eve celebration, dead souls returned to mingle with the living. They called the day Samhain. Depending on who you talk to, people dressed like ghouls to scare away the spirits or to attract them and lead them out of town. Costumed people went door to door demanding contributions for a communal feast. There were bonfires and lots of noise.

As the legend goes, the Catholics showed up, and in their effort to gather converts, they absorbed the festival into their own religion, calling it All Hallow Day. It became a time to worship saints that did not have a day of their own. All Hallow Day had an evening before it and, conjunctions being what they are, we ended up with the word Halloween. More than a thousand years later, in the 1840s, the Irish were in the midst of the potato famine. When they fled their homeland for the new world, they brought Samhain with them, creating the modern holiday.

That seems to make sense. The only trouble is, it may not be true. Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and folklore at UC-Berkeley, says it's all bunk. "Why would they think the beginning of the year was at that time?" asks Dundes. He says that most agrarian cultures celebrated the new year in the spring, when the world was in the process of rebirth, rather than the fall, which is generally associated with death. And there is little evidence of the Irish celebrating Samhain between 500 and 1840.

Most likely, says Dundes, Halloween was derived from a number of pre-Christian traditions throughout Europe that observed the harvest and the passage from life into death. Some of the Celtic traditions may have been included in that bubbling stew of ghouls and goblins that lead to modern Halloween, but, he says, there were likely many contributors.

Thomas Turley, a historian at Santa Clara University, says that there was a strong European tradition of bribing the dead with food to keep them away. It was similar to the way people now bribe children dressed as ghouls to not egg their cars.

"It is a legend, like the razors showing up in apples," says Dundes. The Celtic roots myth has been circulating for at least 40 years or so, working its way into the mainstream. "There is a big Celtic lobby," he adds.

Warner is undeterred by the dose of folklorist. He says that his parents told him about Celtic New Year 50 years ago, and that is what he celebrates on the 31st of October. It is the connection with his ancestral culture that seems to inspire Warner and hundreds like him in the South Bay who are looking back over millennia to their Celtic roots.

"Interest in Celtic culture has been gaining steam in unbelievable proportions," says Sandy Walsh, who puts together a calendar of Celtic events. People are interested in everything from music, art and traditional dance to the annual highland games held at Ben Lomond State Park. Why? The answer is simple, she says, "because it's fun."

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From the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 1997 issue of Metro.

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