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Volume 16, Issue 44 - October 30 - November 5, 2008
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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

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Celebrating the passing light and the coming night

When the little ghosts, goblins and fairies knock on your door Halloween, they are keeping alive a celestial celebration thousands of years old. At this time each year, the earth stands poised between autumnal equinox and winter solstice, marking the final cross-quarter day of the year.

The ancient Celts of Western Europe marked this day as the last of the year, a time for endings and beginnings, death and rebirth. The Feast of Samhain commemorated the death of their god on this day when the barrier between this life and the afterlife was its thinnest and the spirits of the dead came back — in some cases to visit, in others to haunt — the living. The night was celebrated with bonfires, both to guide the wanted and to ward off the unwanted ghosts. Families left food and drink outside their homes for friends and relatives past, but they also set out carved, candle-lit pumpkins and gourds to scare off bad spirits.

With the Roman conquest, the Celtic night of the dead merged with the late-October festival Feralia, when the Romans commemorated the dead. As Christianity took hold around the turning of first millennium, November 1 was proclaimed All-hallowmas, or All Saints Day, making October 31 All-hallows Eve. Two hundred years later, November 2 was made All Souls Day, a sanctified day to celebrate, as Odilo, Abbot of Cluny said, “all the dead who have existed from the beginning of the world to the end of time.”

For us in the land of the living, this is a time of fast-fading light, when the sun rises and sets farther south every day. How fitting that, in our own modern attempts to prolong the light, we set our clocks back one hour to Standard Time early morning November 2, this year’s actual cross-quarter day.


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