Tuesday 1 November 2011

Hallow Day Holiday

Yesterday was Hallowe’en. As I mentioned it is an old festival centred around the old New Year. Spirits of the dead were said to roam the earth and skies, but they were not evil spirits or zombies that people are keen to drag into the celebrations. Christianity latched onto the idea and said “if this is the day spirits of the dead roam, then that must mean Christian dead do too.” From this they came up with the idea of All Saints (or All Hallows) Day on 1st November, when Christians remember the saints and martyrs of the early Church. November 2nd is All Souls Day when the rest of the Christian dead are remembered.

Most festivals of remembrance of the dead take place at this time of year. But its wrong to think that they all originate in the same ancient pagan rite. After all, Armistice Day is 11th November, well within the time limit when such festivals were celebrated, so is that too an ancient pagan festival? In many centuries from now it might be believed to be so if its true origins are forgotten like other ancient festivals.

Over the centuries Christians began to believe that spirits of the dead who went to heaven stayed there and only evil spirits and demons roamed on Hallowe’en and began to “demonise” the whole festival. Around the world today, though, there are many festivals which don’t have a dark shadow over the celebrations. Think about Japan. They have shrines to their ancestors.

In the 21st century more people are trying to discover their own ancestors, not because they want to worship them but because they want to find out more about their family. It is the best way to reveal the hidden stories of people who would otherwise be consigned to history’s recycle bin. After all, why should only the armed forces or victims of tragedy be remembered and no-one else? Do you need to be famous before anyone notices you?

That’s one reason for the research I and other lgbt historians do. We search for those people in the past who have contributed to our history but who are in danger of being lost forever. That’s what all historians do, family historians in particular.

My gay friends know of my love for genealogy. I’ve researched the ancestries of some of them. There’s lots of amazing stories to be found. Take the ancestors of a friend who ran a gay men’s social group I go to. His great-grandparents were bigamists, another ancestor owned a pub with a secret passageway going to the local church so bell-ringers could slip down there during services, and another ended up in the workhouse because he was put out of work by textile machinery invented by his own grandfather.

One surprise I got once was when I researched the ancestry of my last partner, Mark, with whom I worked at Nottingham Castle a few years ago. I knew I was descended from King Edward II, who visited Nottingham Castle quite a lot and made his boyfriend, Piers Gaveston, Constable of the castle. Research into my partner revealed he was descended from Piers Gaveston. Fate, I thought, must have brought us together in the very place our ancestors lived. Unfortunately, I’m also descended from Roger Mortimer who murdered Edward II, and from the Earl of Warwick who murdered Piers Gaveston. So fate cancelled itself out! Pity. It would have been a perfect marketing ploy for the castle – two descendants of Edward II and Piers Gaveston “reunited” in the 20th century (actually, we were partners AFTER we both left the castle, but it’s a cool idea).

Every now and again the government says they want to create a new Bank Holiday, usually mentioning October as a possible month. I suggest we have a “People’s Bank Holiday” on the last weekend in October or first in November to celebrate all those who have lived before us, whether we’re related to them or not. With Hallowe’en on one side and Remembrance Sunday on the other I think it’s the perfect time to regain the original idea behind the festival and celebrate the lives of our ancestors.

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