With every year that passes, the festival of Halloween seems to loom larger in our consciousness - mostly because the retail sector has realised that the night of ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties is ripe for commercial exploitation. It's been nice, though, to note that Twitter has picked up on my earlier blogpost ("Arthur's Ghost?") as a suitable Halloween story.
But here's the thing. We've got the date of Halloween all wrong.
The term "Hallow E'en" derives from the Christian calendar - it is the day before All Hallow's Day - but the traditions associated with Halloween are older. They relate to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced something like "sow - un").
The Celts seem to have done things rather differently to us: their day began at twilight, and life (it would appear) began with death. The Celtic Year effectively began at Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter, just as its polar opposite, Beltane, heralded the start of summer. Both festivals - Samhain, at the end of October, and Beltane, at the beginning of May - were deemed to be occasions when the veil between this world and the Otherworld of spirits and ancestors was unusually thin.
Samhain seems to have grown out of the agricultural calendar. The Earth, which had lain dormant throughout the winter, had returned to life in the spring. This was symbolised by the Great Goddess in her Maiden aspect. As the year progressed, so the goddess became the Sacred (or Flower) Bride of early summer. Her bounty was revealed in the healthy growth of wheat or corn, which was harvested in late summer. Once the harvest was taken in, the year began to turn towards the dead season of winter. The goddess appeared in her hag-like Crone aspect, the harbinger of death, which was how she was celebrated at Samhain.
Towards the end of the sixteenth century, much of Catholic Europe adopted a new calendar. This was the Gregorian Calendar, so named after its sponsor, Pope Gregory XIII. By then, England was a Protestant country and refused on principle to adopt any initiative proposed by the Bishop of Rome. England therefore stuck with the much older Julian Calendar, named after Julius Caesar.
Initially, the two different calendars - the Gregorian Calendar, used by much of Europe, and the Julian Calendar, which remained in use in Britain - were out to the tune of ten days. This created a rather chaotic situation, reflected in Hamlet's remark that "The time is out of joint". Easter, for example, was celebrated on entirely different days in different parts of Europe, depending on which calendar was in use.
Finally, Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 - by which time, the difference between the Old and New calendars had grown to twelve days! Thus, in Britain, Wednesday 2 September 1752 was immediately followed by Thursday 14 September. Many Britons rioted over the "loss" of those days.
The 12-day shift in the calendar which took place in 1752 helps to explain certain anomalies in our present-day calendar.
For example, the tax year in England runs from 6 April to 5 April. This appears to make no sense whatsoever, until we realise that, according to the Old Style Julian Calendar, the new year started on March 25th. Add in the days which were "lost" in 1752 and we arrive at 6 April. The financial year in England therefore remains more or less as it was; the start of the "new" year having slipped twelve days from 25 March to 6 April.
The same shift can be detected elsewhere. Christmas is celebrated by and large on 25 December - except in those parts of the world where "Old" Christmas Day falls on 6 January. Interestingly, in Scotland it is the festival of Hogmanay (New Year) which generates more excitement than Christmas. Wind back 12 days from Hogmanay and you arrive at the midwinter solstice - 21 December - which really does mark a turn in the cycle of the year.
In The King Arthur Conspiracy I noted how the change in the calendar affected another major Celtic festival. Imbolc took place at the start of February, when the goddess appeared in her Maiden guise, the first green shoots were showing and ewes started lactating. It was a festival of new life, innocence and purity. With the 12-day shift in the calendar, this festival slipped forward to 14 February - or what we now call Valentine's Day. There is no connection between St Valentine, an obscure martyr of the third century, and the celebrations of true love on Valentine's Day - they are a relic of the old Imbolc festival.
Similarly, the "Glorious Twelfth" of August, which marks the opening of the grouse-shooting season, recalls the original games of Lughnasadh, which took place on the eve of 1 August.
So what happened to Samhain? We continue to celebrate the old Day of the Dead at the end of October - only now we call it Halloween. But this takes no account of the shift in the calendar. It would be presumptuous to imagine that the ancestral spirits would happily alter the day on which they made themselves present just because we changed the way we calculate the date.
Well, here is where history shows her quirky side.
The Great War of 1914-1918 came to an end on 11 November. Pretty soon, Armistice Day - as it came to be known - was recognised as the day on which the sacrifice of so much doomed youth was commemorated. Another name for this occasion is Remembrance Day. Poppies are worn in remembrance of the young men who were slaughtered in the fields of Flanders. Those who wear these poppies are probably unaware of their older symbolism. The blood-red poppies which bloom in cornfields were cut down when the wheat was harvested, and so they became symbolic of the sacrifice of John Barleycorn, the spirit of the grain, which was recalled at the Samhain festival in remembrance of the dead.
When the Julian Calendar was updated in Britain, being replaced by the Gregorian Calendar, the old Samhain festival would have slipped. By adding in the twelve days lost in 1752, we can arrive at the true date of Samhain - the original Halloween. It would have fallen on what today is 11 November - the date which, since 1918, we have recognised as Remembrance Day, a veritable Day of the Dead.
So while it is fine to celebrate the commercialised festival of Halloween on the last day of October, anyone interested in the true moment in the year when the departed are close at hand, when the old year dies away and the new year is born at the start of winter, should look to the Remembrance Day celebrations. After all, it's fun to dress up as witches, vampires, ghosts and such things. But the spirits insisted on being commemorated on the proper date - 11 November. That is the appropriate date for ghost stories. That always was - and, since the early twentieth century, continues to be the proper Day of the Dead.