It is true that Halloween today is mostly a commercial enterprise but no more so than Easter or Christmas is celebrated in the West. Whilst not a pagan I do value the rituals and beliefs of the festivals because of my enthusiasm of English and Celtic heritage. Also I consider that with paganism there is an obvious closeness to nature which resonates today in the passing of seasons, and indeed the transition of people and relationships in our lives.
Samhain is a Celtic pagan festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “dark” time. Imagine for a moment how in ancient times how little you might see of the wider community through the darkness and the long cold nights of winter. Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, which is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Samhain marks the time when cattle were brought back down from summer pastures, and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. As at Beltane, special bonfires were lit. These were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers and there were rituals involving them.
Samhain (like Beltane) is seen as a highly spiritual time, when the spirits of the dead could more easily come into our world. It is believed that the spirits presence ensures that the people and their livestock survived the winter. In the past offerings of food and drink are left for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. Mumming and guising were part of the festival, and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise), often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes may have been a way of imitating, or disguising oneself from the less friendly spirits.
The early Christian Church sought to bury paganism and it’s festivals by the association of evil and Satanism (Although Satan is a Christian character from Bible). The Church learnt that people would not readily surrender their beliefs and festivals. Even when for for centuries the “old ways” continued despite the employ of the power of the state with enforced murderous terror (witch hunts prospered to 17th Century in England). Instead it adopted and subverted dates and festivals to meet their own calendar (which many of their own remain unclear as based upon testimony rather than nature). In the 9th century AD, the Early Church shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to 1 November, while 2 November later became All Souls’ Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merged to create the modern Halloween. Historians have used the name ‘Samhain’ to refer to Celtic ‘Halloween’ customs up until the 19th century.
Samhain is the true origin of Halloween, and was celebrated many thousands of years before plastic pumpkins. Do not allow rejection of commercialism to bury our heritage – and for some their beliefs. Just as Christmas, the genuine joy in the venture should not simply be dismissed as frivolity. We may not approve of the consumption and superficial nature of modern times but if this is how we celebrate then it should be encouraged. It is for parents to show their children, for teachers and communities to share, what the true values of all festivals are. We help our children to interpret the world, and set personal example for life. If we value and want the ancient messages to bring resonance and hold authenticity we must not just participate but share narrative too. We lose much if we so readily dispose of our heritage, surely it is the foundation of what good we do cherish in humanity?
I do not ask all to embrace the frivolity but neither condemn it, to dismiss as “tacky” or fake. It may not open a gateway for the dead but it provides another opportunity for generations to gather in fun and learning, an opening to dialogue. Consider it an opportunity to engage, to re-tell the stories and life of the past. Above all else do not dismiss the genuine beliefs of many because of the very same tinsel that adorns your own.
Love and light.
“In the season leaves should love,
since it gives them leave to move
through the wind, towards the ground
they were watching while they hung,
legend says there is a seam
stitching darkness like a name.
Now when dying grasses veil
earth from the sky in one last pale
wave, as autumn dies to bring
winter back, and then the spring,
we who die ourselves can peel
back another kind of veil
that hangs among us like thick smoke.
Tonight at last I feel it shake.
I feel the nights stretching away
thousands long behind the days
till they reach the darkness where
all of me is ancestor.
I move my hand and feel a touch
move with me, and when I brush
my own mind across another,
I am with my mother’s mother.
Sure as footsteps in my waiting
self, I find her, and she brings
arms that carry answers for me,
intimate, a waiting bounty.
“Carry me.” She leaves this trail
through a shudder of the veil,
and leaves, like amber where she stays,
a gift for her perpetual gaze.