Last week saw ghostly figures walking the streets of Kathmandu. Not the demons and gods you might expect to be wandering the Kathmandu Valley of old, whose images are seen still on every temple and sacred site. No, most of these figures dressed in ghoulish attires were headed to bars and clubs to celebrate Halloween.
Festivals more normally found in Western countries such as Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Christmas are now celebrated widely across Kathmandu. This is a relatively new phenomena. In my opinion this has come about because Nepal now has access to cable TV and internet and can see what the rest of the world is doing. What will maintain these new traditions, however, is the fact that bars, clubs, restaurants, hotels and the like are making oodles of money out of these festivals.
But do you actually know where these traditions come from? Perhaps you think Halloween and Valentine’s Day come from America. Certainly Hollywood films and American TV are full of images of children ‘trick and treating’ and of young adults giving Valentine’s gifts. Well, what are new traditions in Kathmandu were once new traditions in the West also. Did you know these festivals have their origins in the distant past?
For example, Halloween goes back around 2,000 years to an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain which marked the end of summer and the harvest. It was believed that on this night the line between the world of the living and the world of the dead was very thin, allowing ghosts to come to earth. I should add here that the Celts were tribes which inhabited Ireland, Scotland, and some of Spain and France (and which includes this writer!)
By the time the Roman Empire conquered most of Celtic lands (except Scotland where the Romans even built a wall to keep us out as we were so wild) the festival of Samhain was incorporated into a Roman festival which also commemorated the dead. Later still a Catholic Pope incorporated All Saints Day (again commemorating the dead) into these traditions. And the evening became known as All Hallows Eve. You can see where the word Halloween came from. So next year when you are dressing your children up and handing out candy, remember, this is a not so sweet ancient pagan tradition.
And some of you reading this might be surprised to know that Christmas, the biggest holiday in the Christian calendar, was not originally a Christian festival at all. Early Christians simply adopted a Roman festival which celebrated the coming new year on 25 December. This, together with rituals (known as Yule) from Nordic countries were rolled into one celebration.
Perhaps as people converted to Christianity they still wanted to appease old gods and neighbors who were non-Christian by celebrating with them. Okay so this is a very simplified version of how Christmas came about and I suggest you research more yourself if you are interested! And, you might even come across the fact Jesus was not born on 25 December—his birth date was conveniently moved as well to fit into these older festivals!
Valentine’s Day—yes, you know where this is going—is not in fact a modern celebration of love. It has its roots in a Roman festival celebrating spring and which included fertility rites. In the 5th century another Catholic Pope replaced this festival (known as Lupercalia) with St. Valentine’s Day. But it was not until about 900 years later that the day was celebrated as a day of romance. Gosh, these ancient Romans have had a lot of influence on our modern calendar!
So, while Nepal is celebrating these ‘modern and Western’ festivals, it’s good to remember they are based on rituals of ancient warrior peoples, from way before American was discovered. Indeed many are dark rites which have developed over the centuries into the innocuous festivals we celebrate with so much joy today. Blood curdling or what?