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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.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

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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.


A Pagan Christmas in a Yuletide Way

by Peg Aloi, guest contributor

When I was little, and like many kids before me, Christmas was special for many reasons that had very little to do with the birthday of baby Jesus. I loved the twinkling lights, decorating cookies, eating the savory dishes my Italian grandparents served on Christmas Eve, cutting down our tree in the forest, and singing Christmas carols accompanied by Mom on her Hammond organ. I was raised Catholic, but my parents weren’t terribly strict, and so for me Christmas was always a fairly secular experience.

Many years later, when I decided I wanted to be a witch and that Paganism was closer to my heart than Catholicism, I realized I wouldn’t really have to give up what I loved about the Yuletide season. The solstice celebrates the return of the sun; the rebirth of the sun is not far removed from the birth of the son, is it? Christ is a solar god, honored with gifts sacred to solar gods throughout history: gold, frankincense, myrrh. To some, he’s the light of the world, and so welcoming the return of longer, warmer days is a way to honor the Christian mythology and acknowledge our celestial connection to the cosmos. Many Pagans celebrate aspects of Christmas from their childhood or family traditions, combining them with an observance of Yule as the solar solstice festival.

Percy the Yule DeerMy father was an avid hunter, and deer hunting was a favorite pastime from Thanksgiving onward in upstate New York. One year, instead of stringing Christmas lights up on our porch, Dad decided to take a mounted deer head, an eight-point buck he had named “Percy,” and tie a huge red and white striped bow interspersed with pine boughs around his neck and hang him on the front porch. I was mortified: what teenager wouldn’t be? Normal people hang lights, not taxidermy!

But I now understand Dad was a true pagan at heart, and his humor and love of nature are two personality traits I’m glad to have inherited. I now have Percy hanging on the wall in my living room, and he has holly boughs hanging in his antlers. I always cut fresh greenery from my yard or the woods for this time of year: holly, juniper, cedar, pine, spruce. The image of deer in the snow is my favorite visual theme for the holidays, and I celebrate it by choosing cards with this image, and making dioramas with toy deer and evergreen trees. When performing Yule rituals that tell the story of the Holly King and the Oak King, vying for dominance, until the Holly King finally surrenders to the Oak King until the summer solstice, I like to think my Dad would appreciate the woodsy, manly imagery.

Since becoming a Pagan, I’ve celebrated Yule in many memorable and beautiful ways.

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