As the wheel turns into the dark half of the year, we move toward the sabbat most popularly associated with witchcraft – Halloween. This festival, perhaps more than any other, is shrouded in mystery and misconception. Those not in the know are aware that...something...goes on at Halloween and the suppositions and guesses are enough to fill many a Hollywood horror film and to decorate card shop windows all over the world.
For many, the popular depiction of warty women riding brooms and carrying black cats is the only concept they have as to what it means to practise witchcraft. Halloween is therefore an excellent opportunity for Witches and Pagans (should they choose) to speak out about what it is they do and to share the less secretive aspects of craft working with those interested in the truth behind the fiction.
Witches don't tend to refer to this particular sabbat as Halloween. The common naming originates from the name of the evening preceding the Christian festival of all Saints – hence All Hallows Eve. Witches and Pagans refer to this sabbat as Samhain, its origins being Celtic and traditionally celebrated as the beginning of Winter.
Essentially Samhain is the day of the dead, it is a time when we honour our ancestors and remember those who have left the earthly plane. It is a chance to celebrate the lives of those who have passed over and to remember what they shared with us when they were here. Celebrations may include the use of the dumb supper where a symbolic extra place setting is set at dinner to welcome past family members back into the home or the baking of biscuits and breads to be left outside the house door to nourish passing spirits who may choose to visit.
Samhain is the last of the three harvest festivals celebrated by Pagans. It is the end of the harvest, the end of the light half of the year and it marks a rest for the earth after the fertility and productivity of the summer months. This period of rest can be echoed in our own lives as well. At Mabon (the second harvest festival) we took stock of our own personal harvests, we looked at what we had gone before in the preceding months and we reviewed what we had reaped from the seeds sown and grown into our own personal harvests. At Samhain we can now put the year to bed, we can stand back and evaluate what worked well for us and what changes we would like to make in the coming year. Samhain is a time for self honesty - the hustle and bustle of the year has slowed right down, the nights are drawing in, people feel tired, a little slower and more lethargic. It is in this mindset that perhaps we are most vulnerable to the negativity in our lives. Samhain is a time for discerning what negativity lies in our hearts and for planning steps to take in the coming year to make our lives better. Just as the farmer in days of old may have changed his crop plans for the coming year, we too can decide to sow different seeds to bring happiness in the seasons and harvests ahead.
Similar to the earlier sabbat of Beltane (in May) which marks the time of year when the walls between the world and the world of faery are at their weakest, Samhain is the night of the year when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. Witches and Pagans will often refer to this time as the thinning of the veil. Samhain is therefore a traditional time to attempt communication with the spirits in the otherworld. The much maligned concept of the modern séance may well be undertaken by those practising the craft on this particularly spiritually auspicious night of the year.
Many of the traditions and symbols of modern Halloween can have their origins traced back to pagan times. The symbol of the pumpkin is highly appropriate as pumpkin would have been one of the crops being harvested in mid to late October. The witch flying on her broom remembers the fertility dances danced by wise women among the crops in order to raise energy and luck for a prosperous harvest the following year. The skull of course is representative of the dead and honours those who have crossed the veil.
As to where the modern associations of evil come in, I'm afraid I can't help you there. To the witch communication with spirits is a beautiful and a sacred thing and the thinning of the veil a time for celebration and joy, most certainly not for being frightened. But without a doubt Halloween/Samhain can also be a time for fun and the fact that the festival brings so many people - witches and non witches included - so much pleasure is a good thing in itself. And perhaps, for those of who believe at least, our ancestors looking across from the otherworld (or wherever your particular path has them ending up) would be glad to know that we're all having a good time, albeit in our different ways, on October 31
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