Halloween

Samhain (sah-ween, sam-hain, sow-in, saw-en) & All Hallows' Eve

Because the Celtic calendar ran from the dark time of the year to the light time back to the dark, the Celtic new year was on the eve of October 31st. This was a time of great magic, when the veils between the Otherworld and this world became thinned and spirits could cross through. The Celts believed in time in a circular or spiral fashion unlike our linear view of time with dates as milestones to be passed, and so this day of the year was both an ending and a beginning. The Celts believed that the best day to cast auguries or have their tea leaves or cards read was on Samhain, the day the New Year began, because from that vantage point, they could see any other date in the future or the past. New Year’s Eve for them presented a point outside of time where the rules dissolve into chaos in preparation of reforming order in the morning with the light.

This feast represents the final harvest. It was the time to determine which animals were to be slaughtered so that the community and the herds could live on. It was also a time to check the stores of grain supplies. The Celts would honor their departed by setting aside shares of the feast for them, and would light candles in windows to guide the dead home.

In Wiccan traditions, Samhain is considered by most to be The greatest of the ‘Greater Sabbats.’ It is considered to be a celebration of death and of the dead. Oftentimes it involves paying respects to loved ones who have passed. Some Wiccans enjoy the secular Halloween holiday, while others are disgusted by it. See Terciel Silvereye’s Samhain vs. Halloween discussion for more on how some Wiccans see Halloween as negative.

Pumpkin line-up!

Jack-o-lanterns are a sticky subject. The carved pumpkin was originally associated with the harvest season in general in this country, but became associated with Halloween specifically sometime in the mid-1800s. Some sources say that carved turnips or gourds were used mainly as lanterns to light the way while people were walking at night and were carved with scary faces to frighten away the faeries and ghouls that inhabit the night. This leads me to wonder if they weren’t only used on Samhain but also on any dark night of the year when gourds were in season. Some other sources say that the lanterns were used to protect houses from spirits on Samhain. But if they were used for that purpose, wouldn’t the Celts have risked frightening away the legitimate spirits of their loved ones who they wanted to return?

All Hallows’ eve is the eve of All Hallows’ (All Saints’ Day in the Christian church). The church used to hold a vigil on the night before All Hallows’ (the Vigil of All Saints) before its calendar was simplified (1955) and it was removed in favor of keeping only the day. The name has been bastardized into Halloween from Hallowe’en, or Hallow E’en, meaning Hallows’ Eve. Before Christianity developed, in the British Isles the days began at sundown. So their feast for the Celtic New Year, which was the first of November (unsurprisingly enough, the word for November in Gaelic is Samhain), began on October 31st at sundown. See a larger discussion of Samhain on that page! This was the day of the year when the spirits of the dead could come back to check on the living or play pranks on them.

Since the Christian church in its early days attempted to stamp out indigenous religious practices, they attempted to do so with the Celtic festivals of the dead centering on November 1. Pope Gregory the first in 601 A.D. issued an edict to his missionaries telling them rather than trying to quash the religious beliefs of the lands they were in, they should use them to their own advantage. And so the harvest festival and recognition of the souls who went before became a Christian holiday, All Hallows/Saints. This day became the day to worship all the Christian saints, particularly those who didn’t have their own day.

Unfortunately for the church, the abstract holiday of All Saints did not take away from the feast spirit of the end of the year where all the dead were honored, so the church established another holiday, the Feast of All Souls on November 2. This was the day when all the living were to pray for the souls of all the deceased. Unfortunately again, this still did not have exactly the desired effect. The ancient customs and beliefs still lived on.

See What’s With all this Candy? and costumes for a discussion of why we went trick-or-treating as kids.

Continue to Salem, Massachusetts!