We can honor the souls we once knew by going out to visit them

In County Kerry Ireland and in Newfoundland and Labrador, All Hallows Eve is known as Snap Apple Night. Currier & Ives produced a print called “Snap Apple Night” modeled on Irish artist Daniel Maclise’s 1833 painting of the same name.

“Snap Apple Night,” an engraving by Daniel Maclise of Cork, Ireland, who was praised after his death by Charles Dickens for his “fertility of mind and wonderful wealth of intellect.” In parts of Ireland, All Hallows Eve is known as Snap Apple Night.

In many cultures throughout the ages, there are periods of time when the boundary line between this world and the “other” grows thin and those on the other crossover to visit us.

Often described as liminal, these times are linked to seasonal changes as in the fall when the darker half of the year (winter) is on its way or in spring when new light is coming back. The interplay of light and darkness upsets the way things are.

When the fall harvest season was ending and brought winter’s light, the ancient Irish celebrated the Gaelic festival of Samhain. They called it the time of the “new fire.”  

The late great 20th-Century anthropologist J. G. Frazer said, “In Ireland on the evening before Samhain a new fire was kindled which signaled the beginning of a new year. It was hoped the new fire would serve as a comforting light in the darkness to come.”   

Indeed inhabitants of many villages collected sticks charred by the new fire, hoping their presence at home would prevent house and family alike from being struck by lightening or shaken by some other catastrophe.

The festival of Samhain was celebrated on Nov. 1 and its vigil the night before was known as All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en, which means hallowed evening or holy evening; waiting for the visitors to arrive was a holy time.

Of course, we can see the connection between Halloween these days and the ancient festival especially after the Christian Church baptized the pagan rites and called them Allhallowtide. The triduum comprised All Saints’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day (All Hallows), and All Souls Day stretching from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.

In his unsurpassable-classic “The Golden Bough” — the full 12 volumes not the single that college students were once familiar with — Frazer says Allhallowtide is the “time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinfolk.”

The early winter winds drove “the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside.” Some folks approached the visitation with fear because spirits of any ilk could come their way, but others saw the fading light as a time for hospitality, for welcoming their loved ones back among the living.

To provide sustenance for the alien souls, the residents of towns in southern Germany and Austria baked “soul cakes” or “souls” on All Souls Day (many of which they enjoyed while waiting).  

In Shropshire, England, even into the 20th Century, on All Saints’ Day members of the community went house to house “souling” — poor people in particular, singing “A soul-cake, a soul-cake,/ Have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul-cake.”

It was hoped that neighbors would provide a cake, some apples, maybe a bit of change and, for the accompanying adults, a sip or two of new ale. Charlotte Sophia Burne and Georgina F. Jackson in their classic “Shropshire Folk-lore” published in 1883 recorded instances of homes whose “liberal housewives …  would provide as many [soul-cakes] as a clothes-basket full.”

In the Tyrol, Frazer says, the folk also made “soul-lights.” These were lit and placed on the hearth on All Souls’ Eve so that “poor souls, escaped from the fires of Purgatory, may smear melted grease on their burns and so alleviate their pangs.”

Over time numerous permutations of the earliest Samhain rites developed in different countries, some varying even by locality. Toward the end of the 19th Century in Europe, “souling” was still alive with people going from house to house in search of cakes filled with soul. Souling then morphed into guising or mumming, when children disguised themselves in costume and offered songs, poetry, and jokes — instead of prayer — in hopes of receiving food or coin for their dramatics.

Folklorists say the Scots in masquerade visited neighboring homes carrying lanterns made from scooped-out turnips not only to light the darkened way but also to turn away potentially-threatening ghosts.

When immigrants came to North America, this aspect of the festival morphed into lit pumpkins and trick-or-treating but older folks will recall that families came together to eat and drink and watch the kids play fun-filled games like ducking for apples. In County Kerry and parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Halloween is still called “Snap-Apple Time.”

Those familiar gatherings have all but ceased. Halloween has been reduced to costumed kids trudging door to door expecting treats — or else. Long forgotten is Allhallotide to honor the memory of the dead. Journalist Lesley Bannatyne who has given considerable thought to the holiday, says, “The otherworldly elements of Halloween have moved into the realm of fantasy, satire, and entertainment.”

She’s right but does not mention that no one has to accede to such debasement. It’s possible to honor the souls we once knew by going out to visit them, and our efforts are not limited to formal hallowed eves.

Writers in a class at the Voorheesville Public Library called “Writing Personal History for Family, Friends, and Posterity” do not wait for liminal times when the past can meet the present. They thin the boundary themselves and enter the world of the other with enthusiasm.

That is, they honor the long-dead of their families with stories filled with love, humor, and truth. One soul has sung of a mother who lost direction — no one figured out why — so she and her family had to find ways to accept the ensuing senselessness.

Another writer told of his Italian-American family from Niagara Falls who never stopped talking when they came together, except in the case of a mother’s son who separated from the family only to die, years later, of AIDS. The writer was still having a hard time understanding why the family failed to wrap its collective arms around his brother.

Still, another writer spoke of a bell tower in her native town in Italy that through its hourly tolls reminded every resident to cherish the here and now.

All these writers dared to step across the boundary and speak to the departed with questions based in love and respect even when filled with pain.  

These memorists celebrate their own All Saints Day, their own All Souls Day, their own Halloween; they address the departed, especially those who cannot handle the truth, and in doing so render peace for all involved.

Happy Allhallowtide.