Recently, I was listening to the radio and it seems a local Methodist church is putting on some activities for Halloween. There will be food and crafts for the kiddies and dressing up and lantern making, even a bit of trick and treating. Nothing new there then, except that the reason they are doing this is to challenge the fact that although once a ‘bit of fun’ Halloween is getting worryingly darker and they wished to challenge this by ‘bringing in the light through the love of Jesus’.
This is complete misunderstanding of what this time of year is really about and they have pretty much got it right but for all the wrong reasons. I was brought up a Christian and I have the greatest respect for both the path and the followers, but it never ceases to amaze me how often they can crowbar Jesus in to any situation on the flimsiest of contexts and this is no exception.
The thing is, you can challenge the darkness all you like, but the darkest part of the year is still going to arrive and you can’t stop it. It happens every year and most of us survive these days. What we are doing with Halloween now is an echo of the way our ancestors used to cope with it
I am now a Pagan and we are coming up to the Pagan New Year. It is the most important fire festival of the year and it is a time of reflection and renewal. The traditions of trick and treating and jack ‘o lanterns go back a long way, as do the bonfires. From this time through to Christmas or Yule, many cultures and religions celebrate a time of light triumphing over darkness and this is the first of those festivals.
The over commercialisation of Halloween imported from America only goes to undermine the real traditions and the meanings of those customs with the consequence that most people see it as a form of legalised begging by children or a time of sinister occult darkness which must be overcome. This is both true and untrue.
To put it into some kind of context. Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) would have been marked by the time when the weather was getting colder and the days were noticeably shorter, probably marked by the first hoar frost and the following full moon. The October full moon is called the Hunters Moon, I wonder why. Our agrarian ancestors would have been bringing in the harvest for a few months, the grain harvest, the first fruits harvest, during July and August, the fruits and vegetable harvest (second fruits) later, probably September time, which they would lay down for the winter months and save some of the seeds to replant. Both of these times would have festivals to gather the people together to join in the work. Then came Samhain, this is the time known as the third fruits harvest and that means animals.
Once the cold started to set in, it was time to bring the beasts in from the summer pastures and to make sure that they stayed healthy in the winter quarters, the tribe would need to cleanse all the ticks and insects from them. In order to achieve this, they would be driven between two great smoky bonfires. They would also check the animals over and depending on how much was in the stores, a decision would be made as to how many of the animals could be kept over the winter. So they would slaughter the old and sick and preserve them to make sure that there was food for the humans over the winter months and that there would also be enough fodder for the stronger fitter animals. So it was a time of death. It was also a time of sex, you only have to see the rut going on to understand that. Their beasts would be pregnant ready for the next year.
Death was also very close for the humans in the tribe as well. The cold would take the old and frail and although their approach to death would be very different to our own, the lives being shorter and harder, there would still be a sense of loss and a number of customs to speed the soul on its way.
Like all points of transition, it is a liminal time and it was believed to be a time when the veil was thin and it became easier to contact ancestors and the spirit world and divination could be practiced. They needed to do this because it was such an uncertain time, would there be enough food, what would happen if it ran out too early, what could they do to appease the Gods in order to make sure that the food would last and there would be good hunting if it didn’t. However, they could never be sure what would also cross over and would have needed to protect themselves from the more unsavoury spirits, ones that might cause havoc, make their animals or tribal members sick, steal or spoil their food stores. So they did what all humans do when something scares them but they can’t see it to fight it or run away. They make fun of what they fear, they mock it, they dress up and pretend to be it and they make lanterns with scary faces to chase away the bad spirits that lurk in the darkness.
It was also a time when the fairy folk might be abroad, echoes of the Old Gods, and in order to make sure that they helped with a good harvest the next year and didn’t cause mischief, they would be given offerings and appeasements.
The trick or treat tradition comes from older practices that could have consisted of a group of people getting together, dressing up and going around the village, knocking on doors and having a singing contest with the householders to try and gain entry. Eventually they would then be invited in and given food and hospitality. There are many similar customs across the country that are mainly now used at Christmas, but there is a belief that they could have been performed at Samhain too. There is also the thought that it might come from the collecting of offerings for the fairies or food for the Samhain feast.
To sum up, I would say to the lady from the Methodist church who thought that Halloween was a celebration of darkness and all that is sinister, that she is wrong on so many levels. It is a festival of light, it is a fire festival, you can tell by the bonfires on November 5th (a bit late I know, but why on earth celebrate a failed attempt to blow up parliament in this way? we don’t do it with any other failed criminal activities, unless we were already celebrating something with bonfires and it just sort of migrated a bit) You can tell by the fireworks over the River Liffy, they don’t celebrate bonfire night in Ireland, but they do celebrate Samhain. You can tell by the carved pumpkins with candles in them, which used to be turnips but pumpkins are easier to carve. They were used then as they are now, to ward off evil spirits and the things that frighten us. And in Mexico especially but in other countries too, to coincide with Halloween, (31 October), All Saints Day, (1st November) and All Souls Day (2nd November) they have the Day of the Dead where one of the customs is to picnic around the graves of relatives.
So when you light your jack o’ lantern, or set off your fireworks, or light your bonfire, or give sweets to the little ghouls and ghosts that knock on your door, know that this isn’t an evil act that is perpetuating the occult. You are bringing into your home the light as we go towards the darkest part of the year and you are protecting yourself and your family by challenging the scary stuff and ensuring a good harvest for next year.
Remember too, your Ancestors, the ones who have gone before. It is a time to celebrate that they were with you, to appreciate all the things they bought you and recognise their part in making you the person you are today. At this time they are especially close, they can hear you and touch you. Samhain is a time to embrace the coming darkness by bringing in the light and remembering your loved ones and recognising the advance and the beauty of your own mortality.
Happy Halloween, Happy Samhain.