A Celestial Halloween
Last updated 10/27/2016 at 3:15pm
Ghosts and goblins and ghouls, oh, my!
That's what many of us will be thinking this week and next as Halloween arrives and trick-or-treaters pound excitedly on our doors. We see costumes of monsters, superheroes, politicians and singers. But this year, keep track of how many astronomers show up at your house.
If my guess is correct, you won't see any. Not one Galileo. Not one Sagan. Not even a Mammana, for heaven's sake! I'm always amazed by this fact considering that Halloween, believe it or not, has an astronomical origin.
It all comes down to the seasons and our planet's annual orbit around the sun.
Today, we associate the beginning of each season with the equinoxes and solstices. We recently heard the TV weather reporters explain that autumn began on Sept. 22, the autumnal equinox, when the sun crossed the celestial equator on its way southward. Soon, we'll be hearing them say that winter will begin on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its southernmost point in the daytime sky and once again begins its northward journey.
We hardly ever think about these details; we just recognize these dates as the beginnings of new seasons, and that's that. But it wasn't always this way.
To ancient Germanic and Celtic societies, for example, the equinoxes and solstices marked not the beginning of the seasons but their midpoints. They knew the seasonal beginnings to occur on "cross-quarter" dates, or the points midway between the equinoxes and solstices.
Four cross-quarter dates exist throughout the year, and each has become a minor holiday: Feb. 2 (Groundhog Day), May 1 (May Day), Aug. 1 (Lammas Day) and Oct. 31 (Halloween).
To the Celts, winter began with Halloween, or as they called it "Samhain." This was summer's end. It marked the transition between summer and winter, light and dark, life and death. This was also the Celtic New Year's Eve, and people celebrated the occasion with a great fire festival to encourage the sun not to vanish. On this frightful evening, people danced around massive bonfires to repel demons but left their doors open in hopes that kind spirits of loved ones might join them around their hearths.
So where did all the costumed ghosts and goblins and ghouls of modern Halloween come in? That originates far back in history as well. It was in later pagan and Christian traditions that people went out in masks and robes this time of year to frighten away evil spirits. Some even traveled from farm to farm, carrying hollow turnips with candles inside and demanding food to honor an old god, Muck Olla.
It's easy to see how these ancient traditions have influenced our modern customs for the holidays that occur this time of year. So this Halloween, while you're dressing up in scary outfits or quietly pilfering chocolate bars from your kids' trick-or-treat bags, think about the celestial origin of this holiday.
You might even consider attending your office Halloween party dressed as an astronomer, though if you should choose me as your subject, be forewarned that you'll likely send people shrieking out the door!