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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

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Samhain, The Thinning Veil Between Worlds, with a Witch

by Peg Aloi, guest contributor

samhain (l´esquerda / la grieta /the crack )Photo by Jordi Puig/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

Like most Americans of my generation, I looked forward to trick or treating at Hallowe’en for many years. It was fun to get dressed up and wander the neighborhood with a plastic pumpkin, feeling it grow heavier with candy and other treats. And in those days, the treats were wonderful: homemade cookies! Candy apples! Caramel popcorn balls! My mother made these home-made goodies each year, too, and neighborhood kids looked forward to trick or treat at our house.

Hallowe’en was a sensory holiday for me then, and still is. The colorful costume parades, the chill in the air, the crunch of leaves underfoot, juicy apples and home-made doughnuts, the smell of burning leaves and autumn bonfires: these sensual memories mean autumn to me. Walking home from a friend’s house in the early darkness, the sight of a tree without its leaves against a violet sky filled me with spooky dread, but also a sense of awe.

And Hallowe’en was always the point when it was clear that winter was really coming: you had to prepare a costume that you could layer with an extra sweater underneath, in case it got cold. On some level the gathering of sweets mirrored the hoarding of nuts by the crazed squirrels scrambling through the fallen leaves. Children dressed as fantastical beings in diaphanous gowns, silvery suits, clothing we’d soon forgo in favor of wooly skirts and itchy pullovers. One last decadent night of hell raising before hibernation! Hallowe’en came one week after my birthday, and it was like celebrating non-stop for a week.

But being a practicing witch means I have a very different perspective on this holiday as an adult. For modern witches, Hallowe’en is known as Samhain, a Scottish term meaning “summer’s end” that marks that halfway point between autumn equinox and winter solstice. We also call it Hallows, or sometimes All Souls Night. Growing up a Catholic, I sometimes attended church on All Saints Day, the day after Hallowe’en, and, as a child, didn’t quite understand the connection between the two days, and assumed the church held their Mass the day after simply because the night of Hallowe’en was just too busy and who would want to go to church when they could go door to door gathering candy?

These days, I tend to celebrate this feast of the dead in somber and often unusual ways. The coven I work with has an elaborate cycle of rituals beginning in spring and culminating at Samhain with a rite called Harvest Home, in which a young “harvest lord” is symbolically slain by his consort as a sacrificial offering to fertilize the crops and balance the cycle of life, death, and rebirth: the Eternal Return. I have been to large public rituals where guests were invited to speak of their loved ones who had passed over; I have attended vigils that were peaceful and serene, with candles everywhere and plates of food left for the dead and denizens of the Otherworld.

Some witches celebrate this holiday as the Celtic New Year, and do rituals and rites appropriate for new beginnings. This year, Samhain occurs just after the New Moon in the sign of Scorpio, a very portentous timing. The sun has also just entered the sign of Scorpio, a sign associated with death and regeneration. It is said that at Samhain, as at Beltane (May 1st), the “veil between the worlds,” or the barrier separating the world of the living from the world of the dead, grows thin and permeable, and allows us to commune with our beloved dead and our ancestors. For this reason many witches and pagans create altars dedicated to their ancestors and dead loved ones, with photos and mementos, favorite foods or flowers.

If you haven’t noticed, this holiday has become enormously popular, with the big box stores putting out decorations and supplies as early as Labor Day, and with more and more emphasis on parties, costumes, and decorations, which can mean big business for retailers (a number of whom specialize in Hallowe’en year ‘round). Related holidays are receiving more notice too, such as Mexico’s Dios de la Muerte (“The Day of the Dead”), and I know a number of witches of European ancestry who decorate sugar skulls with their children. And nearly every television network is showing horror films this month, some of them every night. Is it that our culture is becoming more interested in occult matters generally, a sort of second occult revival? Or are we merely so susceptible to social trends and their trappings that we have no idea why we’re so obsessed with the baubles and symbols of death?

Or perhaps, in our yearning for some decadence in the midst of frightening times, we grab hold of outrageous forms of fun. We recall what used to thrill us and delight us as children (horror and sugar), and even if it’s about death, it makes us feel alive, and somehow comforted. We occupy our neighborhoods with treats, and flashlights, and gaudy clothes, and glee. And know we’ll make it even more fun next year.

And the witches among you (we’re there, oh yes), we’ll also decorate our doorways with cornstalks and pumpkins, and put candle-lit skulls in our windows. We’re staving off the darkness, too.


Peg Aloi at the CloistersPeg Aloi is an adjunct professor at The College of Saint Rose and film critic living in Albany, New York. She’s a practicing witch who regularly writes on media for The Witching Hour and Orchards Forever.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

Comments
All Souls’ Day Kate Moos, Managing Producer
The confluence of the rambunctious American ritual of Halloween with the somber and sobering feast days of All Saints and All Souls that follow on its heels has always been confusing to me — never more so than when I was a child. Halloween ranked second to Christmas for the near-hysteria of our anticipation.
The thrill of dressing up to be something scary was delicious, especially so because, as the smallest and youngest member of my large Catholic family, I was much more experienced at being scared than being scary. Halloween allowed me to become the monster. This, no doubt, is at the heart of its hold over us. We’re able to put on the clothing of that which frightens us: darkness and death itself.
As the observance approached this year, I did a little research to remind myself of the roots of these rituals and observations: Halloween, or Hollow’s Eve, marks the night before All Saints’ Day, which falls on November 1st. Generally, it’s thought that the Solemnity of All Saints can be traced to the eighth century and was meant to honor the early Christian martyrs and, more broadly, all of the saints who have died and gone to heaven, or, as the Catholic Church would say, have attained the beatific vision.
All Souls’, which follows on November 2nd, is a day reserved for the rest of the dead — those who died in a state of sin and are being purified by the cleansing flames of Purgatory.
This observance began, some believe, in the eleventh century when, the story goes, it was reported to the Bishop of Cluny by a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land that he had met a hermit who heard the demons in Purgatory complaining that the intercessory prayers Christians said for their deceased shortened their time there. These days of the dead are commonly believed to be timed to ancient harvest festivals that marked the onset of winter, including the Celtic samhain and other earth-based pagan festivals.
There is something deeply intuitive about these festivals of the dead, coming as they do when the earth itself is preparing for its long slumber, the days are growing short and the night ever deeper. The idea of praying for, and tending one’s dead is ancient and universal.
For me, the concept of Purgatory is one I spent a lot of time with in my youth — pre-Vatican II, we were not only allowed but encouraged to say prayers for indulgences — a sign of the cross, spoken aloud, worked 100 days off one’s future Purgatory sentence, and I found it easy and quite satisfying to rip through several dozen signs of the cross in the occasional unoccupied moment. Of course no one could tell me what those 100 days meant, relative to Purgatory time, so I never felt I got ahead of the game. But I tried, even as I suspected there was something a little too easy about the practice.
More deeply puzzling, was reconciling the little witch I became on Halloween with the girl who sat piously in the pew for early Mass the next day.
(body photo: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)
All Souls’ Day Kate Moos, Managing Producer
The confluence of the rambunctious American ritual of Halloween with the somber and sobering feast days of All Saints and All Souls that follow on its heels has always been confusing to me — never more so than when I was a child. Halloween ranked second to Christmas for the near-hysteria of our anticipation.
The thrill of dressing up to be something scary was delicious, especially so because, as the smallest and youngest member of my large Catholic family, I was much more experienced at being scared than being scary. Halloween allowed me to become the monster. This, no doubt, is at the heart of its hold over us. We’re able to put on the clothing of that which frightens us: darkness and death itself.
As the observance approached this year, I did a little research to remind myself of the roots of these rituals and observations: Halloween, or Hollow’s Eve, marks the night before All Saints’ Day, which falls on November 1st. Generally, it’s thought that the Solemnity of All Saints can be traced to the eighth century and was meant to honor the early Christian martyrs and, more broadly, all of the saints who have died and gone to heaven, or, as the Catholic Church would say, have attained the beatific vision.
All Souls’, which follows on November 2nd, is a day reserved for the rest of the dead — those who died in a state of sin and are being purified by the cleansing flames of Purgatory.
This observance began, some believe, in the eleventh century when, the story goes, it was reported to the Bishop of Cluny by a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land that he had met a hermit who heard the demons in Purgatory complaining that the intercessory prayers Christians said for their deceased shortened their time there. These days of the dead are commonly believed to be timed to ancient harvest festivals that marked the onset of winter, including the Celtic samhain and other earth-based pagan festivals.
There is something deeply intuitive about these festivals of the dead, coming as they do when the earth itself is preparing for its long slumber, the days are growing short and the night ever deeper. The idea of praying for, and tending one’s dead is ancient and universal.
For me, the concept of Purgatory is one I spent a lot of time with in my youth — pre-Vatican II, we were not only allowed but encouraged to say prayers for indulgences — a sign of the cross, spoken aloud, worked 100 days off one’s future Purgatory sentence, and I found it easy and quite satisfying to rip through several dozen signs of the cross in the occasional unoccupied moment. Of course no one could tell me what those 100 days meant, relative to Purgatory time, so I never felt I got ahead of the game. But I tried, even as I suspected there was something a little too easy about the practice.
More deeply puzzling, was reconciling the little witch I became on Halloween with the girl who sat piously in the pew for early Mass the next day.
(body photo: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

All Souls’ Day
Kate Moos, Managing Producer

The confluence of the rambunctious American ritual of Halloween with the somber and sobering feast days of All Saints and All Souls that follow on its heels has always been confusing to me — never more so than when I was a child. Halloween ranked second to Christmas for the near-hysteria of our anticipation.

The thrill of dressing up to be something scary was delicious, especially so because, as the smallest and youngest member of my large Catholic family, I was much more experienced at being scared than being scary. Halloween allowed me to become the monster. This, no doubt, is at the heart of its hold over us. We’re able to put on the clothing of that which frightens us: darkness and death itself.

"Gai-Kotsu SkeletonAs the observance approached this year, I did a little research to remind myself of the roots of these rituals and observations: Halloween, or Hollow’s Eve, marks the night before All Saints’ Day, which falls on November 1st. Generally, it’s thought that the Solemnity of All Saints can be traced to the eighth century and was meant to honor the early Christian martyrs and, more broadly, all of the saints who have died and gone to heaven, or, as the Catholic Church would say, have attained the beatific vision.

All Souls’, which follows on November 2nd, is a day reserved for the rest of the dead — those who died in a state of sin and are being purified by the cleansing flames of Purgatory.

This observance began, some believe, in the eleventh century when, the story goes, it was reported to the Bishop of Cluny by a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land that he had met a hermit who heard the demons in Purgatory complaining that the intercessory prayers Christians said for their deceased shortened their time there. These days of the dead are commonly believed to be timed to ancient harvest festivals that marked the onset of winter, including the Celtic samhain and other earth-based pagan festivals.

There is something deeply intuitive about these festivals of the dead, coming as they do when the earth itself is preparing for its long slumber, the days are growing short and the night ever deeper. The idea of praying for, and tending one’s dead is ancient and universal.

For me, the concept of Purgatory is one I spent a lot of time with in my youth — pre-Vatican II, we were not only allowed but encouraged to say prayers for indulgences — a sign of the cross, spoken aloud, worked 100 days off one’s future Purgatory sentence, and I found it easy and quite satisfying to rip through several dozen signs of the cross in the occasional unoccupied moment. Of course no one could tell me what those 100 days meant, relative to Purgatory time, so I never felt I got ahead of the game. But I tried, even as I suspected there was something a little too easy about the practice.

More deeply puzzling, was reconciling the little witch I became on Halloween with the girl who sat piously in the pew for early Mass the next day.

(body photo: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

Comments