Yesterday was October 31st, which was the holiday of Halloween.
There is an excellent article by Isaac Bonewits about the pagan origins of Halloween, which I highly recommend you read – but I’ll be the first to admit that by now and in mainstream American culture, Halloween is a secular holiday where people dress up in costumes, children get candy, adults get drunk, and everybody has a grand time.
However, I am one of those odd people well acquainted with the pagan origins of Halloween, as I was raised by neo-pagan parents who also happened to be academics. So forgive me as I ramble on about the other less mainstream aspects of this particular holiday.
So, Halloween for me has always been two parts – October 31st was when I dressed in a Halloween costume and perused my neighborhood with my friends going door to door asking strangers for candy (it sounds great that way, right?). The second part was on November 1st, when we’d recognize the fire festival of Samhain. As Bonewits explains in his essay, Halloween is most directly connected to this ancient holy day, celebrated by the Celtic people prior to Christianity coming to their lands.
Firstly, before anyone gets confused, “Samhain” is pronounced “Sow-en”. The word is Irish Gaelic, and “mh” in the middle of a word makes a “w” sound. (If you’d like to learn Irish Gaelic and you happen to live in the New England area, by the way, my mother teaches Beginners & Intermediate Irish Gaelic in Manchester, New Hampshire).
Now, Samhain is actually celebrated by modern practitioners. There are neo-pagan faiths like the one I was raised within, and there are other religions such as Wicca and eclectic witchcraft, which have adopted the holiday. In general, modern self-identifying pagans tend to celebrate Samhain around the same time as Halloween.
As someone who was raised within Celtic traditions, I do spend a bit of time on forums and message boards for neo-pagans, educating about practices, histories, meanings and rituals. I recently observed someone ask when the appropriate time to do a Samhain ritual would be – October 31st? November 1st?
Now, Samhain is actually a word in modern Irish Gaelic which means “November”. So, I’m partial to a November 1st ritual. But if you want to keep it “traditional” and perhaps more spiritually potent, you also have to recognize a few basic facts –
The ancient Celts saw Samhain as a festival recognizing the final harvest before winter. This means, from a logical standpoint, that they’d be getting to the celebrations after the work was done.
The ancient Celts didn’t have our calendar, so they celebrated based on the advice of their spiritual and community leaders. These leaders presumably observed the length of the days, the progress of preparations and the weather to accurately place the day(s) of celebration. The first frost would be a potent symbol that winter was on its way and it was time to ask their deities for strength and warmth and plenty to make it through the cold.
The ancient Celts also saw Samhain as a time “in-between”. Most of us are aware of some sort of lore saying that the “veil is thinnest” near Halloween, that the dead walk among us – in traditions spanning the world, this season was one to recognize ancestors recently or long dead.
If you were to “accurately” pin down the date of Samhain, you’d first need to recognize your location – if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, refer to the lore regarding the holiday of Beltaine. These celebrations are part of “Earth-based spirituality” and that requires you conform somewhat to the Earth’s cycles rather than your own convenience. If you’re in a place that gets frost and snow, you may want to keep an eye out on your weather patterns. It snowed over Halloween weekend this year in Boston, MA. Needless to say, Samhain’s shown up there. If you live near me, in Los Angeles, or other non-snowing locales in the Northern Hemisphere, you’re not going to use weather as your Samhain indicator, unless you’re really sensitive to the changes of the “seasons”.
But here’s the next part of it – what are you trying to do with a Samhain ritual? Symbolically, the previous year is dying, the Earth is preparing for its “sleep”, and if you lived in an agricultural society, you’d be storing your food and weather-proofing your home. I know the only storing of food I’m doing is buying it from one, and living in Los Angeles I don’t have weather to “proof” from. So I’ve got to focus on a different aspect.
I tend to spend my summers having wild adventures. This year I drove across country, last year I moved across country, the year before that I had a whirlwind romance that finally broke my heart. As autumn and winter approach, I find myself preparing for some contemplation – a “harvesting”, if you will, of the various experiences I’ve had – and I attempt to take said experiences, make sense of them, and write them out or create something with them. Thusly I have something to sustain me in a time when perhaps I’m not out “farming” new adventures, but keeping to routine. The metaphors could go on for hours.
The next aspect of Samhain is that of ancestors. With the concept that the veil is thinnest and that we must honor our dead, it is expected that we use this particular time to reach out and communicate. Name our dead, share memories, leave offerings of creative work, or even set a place for them at the dinner table. This is a reminder of where we come from – the paths that have been forged before us, and at its most basic core, a reminder that generations upon generations before us have made it through the darkest nights and back to the warmth of the Sun.
So Samhain is here, roughly. For me it is – others may be past it, others may still be waiting.
I am Avens, daughter of Domi – daughter of Anita and Jack. I am Avens, daughter of Arne – son of Constance and Arne.
I honor the paths of my ancestors, and recognize their paths from Celtic and Nordic lands, across the sea and to this country I call home.
I honor the paths of those I have known who have gone beyond where I have yet to follow. They are remembered and loved, and though I name them in my mind, I voice one name aloud – Isaac Bonewits passed away in August of 2010, and I honor him by referencing him whenever I can within the subject of his life’s work and passion, particularly in this essay.
I honor the paths I have taken this year, which I now seek to break down and understand and write about, adapt into creation and make into something worth recalling.
I honor the coming season – those shorter days and longer nights as twilight of our year gives way to midnight and the longest night approaches, I respect and honor the challenge that we can survive and thrive and see the sun on the other side.
I am, as always, a human being who is learning and evolving, attempting to pass along knowledge I’ve accumulated as I have it to share.
If Samhain is something you didn’t know about, I hope this gave you some insight to a spirituality not your own.
If Samhain is something you celebrate, please accept my wish that yours is fulfilling, and may it be blessed.
There is light in the darkness, there is fire when there is no sun, and as my ancestors may have seen it – so do I, a New Year begins.