Thursday, June 23, 2011


   Every year it seems some organization or church group is on television protesting the observance of Halloween as evil or trying to replace it with some type of non-threatening, innocuous fall festival. These people seem genuinely concerned about all the Satan worship, ghouls, demon activity and the general evil theme of the holiday. While it's true that many modern Halloween practices and activities tend to run on the slightly evil side, the origins of Halloween are much less disturbing. To help sort out the truth from the Hollywood-generated, pseudo-Halloween reality of axe-wielding killers and virgin sacrifices, I've pulled together a brief history lesson and clarification of some common Halloween misconceptions. So lock your doors, light a candle and let's get started.

Satan, Witches, Candy and Other Halloween Misconceptions: Misconception #1
- Halloween is all about worshiping Satan

   Dating back more than 2,000 years, long before the influence of Christianity, the Celts observed Samhain (pronounced "Sow-en") during the evening of October 31st. Occurring on the eve of the Celtic New Year, Samhain represented a time when ghosts of the departed were allowed to roam the world harassing relatives, ruining crops and making general mischief. During this evening, Celtic priests (a.k.a the Druids) built great bonfires where people could offer sacrifices of crops or animals to honor the Druid deities. Some sources say that they may have worn animal heads or masks during the ceremony as an additional tribute.
   During a four hundred year period of Roman rule, beginning in about 43 C.E., the Celtic holiday of Samhain was merged with two Roman festivals. Feralia was observed in late-October to commemorate the passing of the dead and a second festival was devoted to honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees. During this period, Samhain was still observed by many Celts.

   With the emergence of Christianity in northern Europe during the 7th century, the church decided that the pagan holiday of Samhain could not continue. In an attempt to erase Samhain, Pope Boniface IV declared November 1st as All Saints Day; a time to honor saints and martyrs. The general historical consensus is that the Pope was trying to replace Samhain with a church-approved holiday. This new celebration was referred to as All Hallowmas, taken from its proper Middle English name Alholowmesse. Not quite ready to give up their ancient holiday, the Celts simply continued to observe Samhain on the eve of Alholowmesse, which came to be known as Alholowmesse Eve and much later Halloween.
     In a second attempt to eliminate Samhain during the 11th century, the church declared November 2nd as All Souls Day which honored the departed. Celebrated with bonfires and costumes, All Souls Day bore a striking resemblance to the Celtic Samhain and inadvertently created a three-day celebration which was referred to as Hallowmas.
   What does all of this history teach us? Halloween seems to have evolved from an ancient Pagan holiday which had nothing to do with Satan.

Satan, Witches, Candy and Other Halloween Misconceptions: Misconception #2
 - Pagans worship Satan.

   Although there is no generally accepted definition of the word pagan, most people will agree that its origin lays in the Latin word paganus. Unfortunately, to further muddy the water, there is no precise definition of paganus before the 5th century. One theory offers that it was used by early Christians as a slur against uneducated people who held fast to old Roman or Greek polytheistic beliefs and were considered to be "hicks" or "country bumpkins" in today's terms.

   In about the 3rd century, the term pagan was used to describe any non-christian, which opened the door for the possibility of Satan worship. This seems like an odd assumption, as most pagans consider Satan to be the dark side of Christianity; a concept that would not likely be included in pagan beliefs.

 Satan, Witches, Candy and Other Halloween Misconceptions: Misconception #3
 - "Trick or Treating" is all about ghouls, demons and witches.

  During the Celtic Samhain celebration, people were sometimes reluctant to leave their home, for fear of being recognized by all the ghosts milling about. To avoid being harassed by these spirits, people wore masks or costumes so they might be mistaken for a fellow ghost. They would also leave food and wine by the road to appease the spirits and keep them from trying to enter the home.

   Early English All Souls Day celebrations included parades, dressing up like saints or angels and the practice of giving food to the poor. In return for this handout, the poor promised to pray for the deceased relatives of the giver. This practice was widely encouraged by the church as a way to replace the pagan practice of leaving food for roaming spirits. Over time, this ritual was taken over by children and helped create today's Halloween tradition, as well as a yearly spike in candy sales.
   It seems that the present day tradition of "Trick or Treating" seems to be a combination of many ancient pagan and church rituals, rather than some satanic mischief-making activity.


   Gawai Day or Gawai Dayak is a festival celebrated in Sarawak on  June 1st  every year. It is both a religious and social occasion. The word Gawai means a ritual or festival whereas Dayak is a collective name for the native ethnic groups of Sarawak (and neighboring Indonesian Kalimantan): the Iban, also known as Sea Dayak and the Bidayuh people, also known as Land Dayak. Thus, Gawai Dayak literally means "Dayak Festival". Dayak would visit their friends and relatives on this day. Such visit is more commonly known as "ngabang" in the Iban language. Those too far away to visit would receive greeting cards.
   It started back in 1957 in a radio forum held by Mr Ian Kingsley, a radio programme organiser. This generated a lot of interest among the Dayak community.

   The mode of celebration varies from place to place. Preparation starts early. Tuak (rice wine) is brewed (at least one month before the celebration) and traditional delicacies like penganan (cakes from rice flour, sugar and coconut milk) are prepared. As the big day approaches, everyone will be busy with general cleaning and preparing food and cakes. On Gawai Eve, glutinous rice is steamed in bamboo (ngelulun pulut). In the longhouse, new mats will be laid out on the ruai (an open gallery which runs through the entire length of the longhouse). The walls of most bilik (rooms) and the ruai are decorated with Pua Kumbu (traditional blankets). A visit to clean the graveyard is also conducted and offerings offered to the dead. After the visit it is important to bathe before entering the longhouse to ward off bad luck.

   The celebration starts on the evening of 31 May. In most Iban longhouses, it starts with a ceremony called Muai Antu Rua (to cast away the spirit of greed), signifying the non-interference of the spirit of bad luck in the celebration. Two children or men each dragging a chapan (winnowing basket) will pass each family's room. Every family will throw some unwanted article into the basket. The unwanted articles will be tossed to the ground from the end of the longhouse for the spirit of bad luck.

   Around 6 pm or as the sun sets, miring (offering ceremony) will take place. Before the ceremony, gendang rayah (ritual music) is performed. The Feast Chief thanks the gods for the good harvest, and asks for guidance, blessings and long life as he waves a cockerel over the offerings. He then sacrifices the cockerel and a little blood is used together with the offerings.
   Once the offering ceremony is done, dinner is then served at the ruai. Just before midnight, a procession up and down the ruai seven times called Ngalu Petara (welcoming the spirit gods) is performed. During this procession, a beauty pageant to choose the festival's queen and king (Kumang &  Keling Gawai) is sometimes conducted. Meanwhile, drinks, traditional cakes and delicacies are served.

   At midnight, the gong is beaten to call the celebrants to attention. The longhouse Chief (tuai rumah) or Festival Chief will lead everyone to drink the Ai Pengayu (normally tuak for long life) and at the same time wish each other "gayu-guru, gerai-nyamai" (long life, health and prosperity). The celebration now turns merrier and less formal. Some will dance to the traditional music played, others will sing the pantun (poems). In urban areas, Dayaks will organise gatherings at community centres or restaurants to celebrate the evening.
   Other activities that may follow the next few days include: cock-fighting matches, and blowpipe and ngajat competitions. On this day, 1 June, homes of the Dayaks are opened to visitors and guests.

   Traditionally, when guests arrive at a longhouse, they are given the ai tiki as a welcome. From time to time, guests are served tuak. This would be called nyibur temuai which literally means "watering of guests".
   Christian Dayaks normally attend a church mass service to thank God for the good harvest.
   Gawai Dayak celebrations may last for several days. It is also during this time of year that many Dayak weddings take place, as it is one of the rare occasions when all the members of the community return home to their ancestral longhouse.

   Up till 1962, the British colonial government refused to recognise Dayak Day. Gawai Dayak was formally gazetted on 25 September 1964 as a public holiday in place of Sarawak Day. It was first celebrated on 1 June 1965 and became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community. Today, it is an integral part of Dayak social life. It is a thanksgiving day marking good harvest and a time to plan for the new farming season or activities ahead.