Samhain is the cross-quarter between Mabon – the Autumnal Equinox and Yule – the Winter Solstice. Samhain is the height of Fall, the final harvest celebration, and the beginning of a new year. It is one of only four seasonal holidays celebrated by the Celts. Interestingly, they did not traditionally celebrate the Equinoxes and Solstices, just the cross-quarters in the Wheel of the Year. And Samhain is not October 31st all around the world. It is a seasonal harvest celebration, which would be closer to May 1st in the Southern hemisphere, when us Northerners would be having Beltaine. Many believe these two times of the year are when the veil between the worlds of the seen and unseen is its thinnest and we corporeal beings can not only see ghosts and goblins, but they can see us.
It is this non-agricultural belief in the mingling of worlds that brought about the tradition of trick-or-treating (and presumably Guy Fawkes day had an influence as well). Children dress up as something scary so that beings from the other side do not take them away, but instead see only themselves and others like them, no tasty children here! I will never understand how princesses and pirates got in on this gig, but Americans are known to commercialize anything and everything.
However, it is the agricultural cycle that makes this a time to honor those who have passed into that other unseen world. The Earth herself is seemingly dying away, preparing for the Winter’s rest and rejuvenation. And the combination of the two beliefs is the catalyst of dumb or silent suppers where you set a place for the dead at the table and Dios de la Muerte traditions of picnicking with the dear departed at their gravesite then leaving offerings of favorite foods.
The origins of the word Samhain could point to it meaning “Summer’s End” or “Assembly” based on what Wikipedia had to offer. I would like to believe it is meant to be both, an actual assembly at the final ending of Summer and a successful harvest season. This should be a time of thankfulness and remembering. It is also a time of grief or mourning. We grieve the loved ones lost, even the passing of celebrity that somehow impacted our lives, the changes of the season and changes in our personal lives, and we may even grieve the unknown future. All change has a tiny bit of fear intertwined, that same fear of the unknown so aptly reflected in the decorations of the season.
Surprisingly, the Halloween memories of my childhood were never fearful but pure joy. The decorations, costumes, and time spent with my sister as we prowled the neighborhood for treats and the anticipation of doing it year after year far outweighed thoughts of Christmas or Easter.
Unbeknownst to me at that time, and truly up ’til recently, I was not aware that Halloween and Samhain are NOT the same holiday. I was shocked. The holiday that cultivated my love of all things Pagan and an appetite for horror films was actually of Christian origin. And Halloween does occur only on October 31st, as it is not related to the harvest nor the change of seasons at all.
Pope Boniface IV originally set May 13th as All Saints Day or All Hallows Day in 609 A.D. to pay respect to the sainted who had passed and attained Heaven and All Souls Day the next day dedicated to those who have died and not yet reached Heaven. It is believed the date in May was chosen to co-opt the Pagan holiday “Feast of Lemures” which was used to placate the restless spirits of the dead and therefore was a way of bringing Pagans into the Church. In the mid-eighth century, Pope Gregory III set All Saints or All Hallows Day on November 1st and added All Souls Day on November 2nd. This allowed the Church to more readily convert the Northern and Celtic Pagans who could not let go of their Samhain traditions entirely. Protestants tend to be scornful of the whole idea of these holidays as they see past the front to the Pagan roots and find it distasteful for good Christians to continue participating in Pagan rites or other such assumed devil-worship. One documentary stated that Martin Luther chose Halloween 1517 to nail his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church for this very reason. Halloween, the evening before All Hallows Day, never lost popularity over the years and only gained momentum as a secular children’s holiday right up until the tainted candy scares of the late 20th century. Then everything changed.
I believe it was my happy memories of Halloweens past and my Christian family’s embrace of the holiday that fuels me to try to keep the Pagan traditions (but in a fun way) and always include my children so that they not only learn what is important to me and that I wish to hand down, but they also have happy holiday memories of their own. So, we meld the rituals of past and present by trick-or-treating while we still legally can, and having Samhain suppers with gatherings of family and friends to honor our ancestors and give thanks for our good fortune. It is the beginning of the new year, seasonally, and a time bountiful with change. Embrace the new and honor the old.
In recent years, it has become more difficult for the little children to trick-or-treat. Age restrictions started when I was little because older kids would cause too much mischief on Halloween or the night before, October 30th, sometimes referred to as Devil’s Night or Mischief Night. So, going back to the old ways of more private celebrations with suppers and parties is becoming the new norm. Less liberal religious groups see Halloween as evil and something to not be allowed as a public display. Sadly, it is not unheard of for towns across the world to not have trick-or-treat at all. Or even worse, using the holiday to capitalize on consumerism as has been done with Christmas for longer than I have been alive. I didn’t mind taking the kids to the Mall to trick-or-treat when the weather was especially cold or wet, that was still almost acceptable, but I am not comfortable with Fall Festivals or Fairs replacing Halloween or Samhain activities. I like my my parties with a side of spirituality. That is just me. Opinions greatly vary, even among my closest friends.
Look for the story “The Night Before Halloween” to bring back some of the playfulness and joy of Halloweens gone by. Let us take some time to share memories of our loved ones passed, changes that have caused us to mourn or dread, and joys of the new year coming in the comment section below.
Rev. GrandMama Ravyn