Samhain, The Thinning Veil Between Worlds, with a Witch
by Peg Aloi, guest contributor
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 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.
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Facing Our Darkness on Halloween Night
by Caroline Oakes, guest contributor
Photo by Susy Morris/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Like most people, since I was a child, Halloween brings a heady rush of excitement that definitely goes beyond costumes, jack-o-lanterns, and even trick-or-treating for good chocolate.
Year after year, exhilaration sets in as children and parents begin their animated zig-zagging through neighborhoods in the deep dark of night, dressed as something or someone they aren’t really, knocking on the doors of perfect strangers, coming face-to-face with the unknown and unseen.
Now, I am aware that some parents and a number of churches are less than enthusiastic about the traditions of this liminal night, and are going so far as to pull their children out of Halloween activities entirely, or are offering “Godly” alternatives. (Heard yet about “Jesus Ween”?)
While some people’s claims that Halloween should be assailed as inherently “evil” or “of the devil” and not consistent with Christian values are questionable — both theologically and historically — the real regret here is the opportunity that is lost by missing the point of Halloween.
In pre-Christian, Christian, and now post-Christian times, October 31st has traditionally been a night to name and face our fears, a time to face “the dark” — the dark outside of us, and the dark inside of us.
When we give our children the freedom to take those first steps out into the dark of Halloween night, we are allowing them to learn, first-hand, that the foreboding darkness that will envelop them will not, in fact, consume them.
They learn on their own that, even if they wear a mask of something they think is really scary, they don’t actually become that scary thing. In the act of putting on the mask, the scary thing loses much of its power, and the child’s own sense of inner power, inner light, and identity is affirmed.
As Halloween comes and goes each year, children slowly and safely wander farther from home, becoming more secure in their growing knowledge that what looks (at first) like something deep, dark, and foreboding can also be full of surprise, delight, and even joy.
The subliminal messages here are positive and healthy ones for our children and for our planet. The world around us, even the world inside each one of us, is neither all evil nor all good, neither all light nor all dark. There is always more than meets the eye.
So, parents banning Halloween night? There is real irony here. Parents forbidding their children (and themselves) this chance to face their fears, telling them instead that they cannot dress up, they cannot go outside in the dark, they cannot trick-or-treat, may actually be promoting fearful messages — that the world is a terrifying place, no one is safe, and we have no power over the inner and outer demons of our lives.
These are messages that perpetuate the dangerously dualistic, black and white, uncompromising way of seeing the world that is polarizing our society today.
But when we shed some light on the dark complexities of Halloween night, even the simple exchange of trick-or-treating can carry an important subtext: at every open door on Halloween night, children and their parents are enacting the universal (and spiritual) principle of giving — namely, that it is good (indeed it is a sign of our inner humanity) that we can willingly open our doors and give generously to complete strangers, even to those who wear masks, making them unrecognizable and frightening to us. There is always more than meets the eye.
Halloween can be as grace-filled as it is black-dark, a night to discover, year after year, that when we venture out into the darkness of the unknown, the night can be beautiful. Others are kind. Evil is actually a lot like a monster mask, and after an exhilarating few hours of exploring the dark, we can always return to the light of home, safe and sound.
And sometimes with a boatload of pretty darn good chocolate.
Caroline Oakes is a writer with a degree in ascetical theology from The General Theological Seminary. You can read her “Mind and Spirit” column in The Bucks County Herald. She lives in in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
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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)