Hallowed histories of bonfire?

by Julia Levy | 10/27/00 5:00am

Despite all the hype and preparation, Homecoming is not the only fall ritual being celebrated by Dartmouth students.

This year, the bonfire falls just four days before Halloween, another ritual whose history The Dartmouth will "treat" you to this season.

People have been celebrating different holidays and festivals at the end of October for thousands of years -- Dartmouth students when they first started building bonfires in honor of fall athletic events in the 1800s.

Before the Romans invaded what is now England and Northern France, the Celts celebrated the end of "summer" and the beginning of "winter" -- they observed only two seasons -- with a unique fall celebration.

The Celts celebrated their New Year on Nov. 1. The night before the new year -- Oct. 31 --after the crops had all been harvested and stored, the Druids, the Celtic priests, met on dark hilltops and lit fires to offer sacrifices of crops and animals.

The druids danced around their fires -- much like you will see freshmen doing tonight on the Green, but with more fervor -- believing that the season of sun was passing and the season of darkness was beginning. The Nov. 1 holiday was named after one of the Celtic gods, Samhain.

The festival lasted for three days and many Celts traditionally paraded in costumes (sound familiar?).

During the first century, when the Romans invaded Britain, the Celtic traditions combined with the new practices of the Romans to create a new kind of fall ritual.

One new Roman tradition was Pomona Day, an early November holiday named for the goddess of fruits and gardens.

After hundreds of years of Roman rule, Celtic Samhain and Roman Pomona Day mixed into one fall holiday, which was later to be influenced by Christianity.

In 835, the Roman Catholic Church designated Nov. 1 a holiday to celebrate the saints. They called the day All Saint's Day or Hallowmas or All Hallows. Later, the Church designated Nov. 2 as All Souls Day, which honored the dead.

To this day, "Da de los Muertos" is an important celebration in Spanish-speaking countries. People typically spend the day at the graveyard with their deceased relatives in a joyful celebration with masks and costumes.

Meanwhile, back before the year 1000, people continued to celebrate Samhain and Pomona Day. Over the years, Oct. 31 became known as All Hallow Even, All Hallow's Eve, Hallowe'en, and finally what we now know as Halloween.

So, the Hallmark holiday we now call Halloween stemmed from various religious practices -- notably the Druids' practice of dancing around fire.

Tonight, you will see similar scenes as members of the Class of 2004 attempt to run 104 times around the burning structure of the bonfire.

You will see the fire rushing out of the top of the structure like an open fire hydrant flushing upwards. You will see thousands of people standing on the sidelines around the Green, watching the contagious, running, screaming mob.

Clearly, Dartmouth's own fall-time holiday is not a religious celebration.

But with a colored falling leaf never far away and with pumpkin-picking season underway, Dartmouth's celebration touches on some of the same themes as the original fall celebrations of the harvest.