Its October 31st so that means in Ireland, Britain, the USA and probably in other parts of the world too its Hallowe’en. (Note the apostrophe!) This is the first festival/feast day/notable date in my Year of Living Seasonally project and its one that I’ve never much partaken in. I grew up in the south-west of England and we never really marked Hallowe’en much (that might just have been us mind you). Bonfire Night (Nov 5th) was a bigger deal for us. As I learnt more about Celtic and Irish folklore and customs and also began to explore religion and spirituality more, this time fascinated me.
You see, traditionally (and I’m slightly wary of that word because one family’s traditions, or one region’s traditions are not the same as another’s) here in Ireland it was the festival of Samhain, one of the cross quarter days that marked the changing of the seasons and the cycle of the year. It was seen as the start of winter and was marked – according to some authorities – from sunset on October 31st until sunset on November 1st. James MacKillop in his Dictionary of Celtic Mythology says Samhain was the “principal calendar feast of early Ireland.” Samhain was – and for many still remains – the Celtic New Year. Many pagans observe this festival as their New Year today. It might seem an odd time to celebrate or mark the start of a new year. I rather like the idea of starting a new year as the seasons change and as we move into winter. The sense of burrowing down, of resting and reflecting by the fireside appeals to me very much. I like to spend the winter evenings reading, pondering, switching off. For me its a time to shed the old and prepare for the rejuvenation that comes at Imbolc, the start of spring on February 1st. MacKillop says that “Samhain seemed suspended in time, when the borders between the natural and the supernatural dissolve and the spirits from the Otherworld might move freely into the realm of mortals.”
The Celtic calendar is usually displayed as a wheel – emphasising the cycle of life and the seasons – and it is common for Samhain to be at the top of the wheel (in the 12 o’clock position if you like). In Ireland and Britain we still alter our clocks twice a year and it was last weekend when we turned the clocks back an hour. Consequently it is darker earlier now in the evenings and this enhances (for me anyway) the sense of it being time to slow down, to relax, to reflect. For many people, Samhain is a spiritual and religious event which is marked by ceremony and ritual. I live some 15 miles or so away from Tlachtga near Athboy in Co. Meath where on this date every year a ceremony is held to mark the date, the turning of the wheel and to honour the dead. You can read more about this here. I haven’t attended it yet, and won’t be this year either but I like the idea of the ceremony. There are many many gatherings, feasts and ceremonies being held to mark this night. I found this little verse online earlier and it spoke to me:
Blessed be the ancestors, the ones whom life has fled
Tonight we merry meet again, our own beloved dead
The wheel of the year turns on, a new year is in our sights
The maiden has become the crone, we celebrate this night
Over the last couple of years I have been reading more and thinking more about the sacred feminine so the reference to the maiden and the crone resonates with me. So if Samhain is a calendar festival that marks changes in the natural year and for some is a sacred occasion, then where did Hallowe’en come from? You might be surprised to learn that the term Hallowe’en is of Christian origin. I mentioned the importance of the apostrophe earlier – it signifies that the original term was likely ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘holy evening’ which probably came from All Hallows Eve, being the term for the night before All Hallows Day – or All Saints Day as it is better known. All Saints Day of course precedes All Souls Day, which is a Christian day of prayer for the dead. I have my own personal beliefs and I do try to actively respect those of others but a day of prayer for the dead just two days after Samhain – I wonder where the idea came from? However, I digress. So Hallowe’en then is the night before All Saints Day. So where do the now widely practised traditions of trick or treating, Jack O Lanterns and the like come from? You could do worse than start with the Wikipedia entry for Hallowe’en for some explanations. A couple of quick points though: Jack O Lanterns are hollowed out vegetables (now usually pumpkins) in which a face, often a grotesque one, is carved and a candle is placed, the idea being that this monstrous illuminated face will frighten off any unwanted creatures from the Otherworld who might have passed through the veil between the two worlds (back to Samhain again). Trick or treating, well that seems to have grown from the tradition of going from door to door receiving food Britain and Ireland called “souling”, where children and poor people would sing and say prayers for the dead in return for cakes. Guising—children disguised in costumes going from door to door for food and coins—also predates trick or treat, and is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1895, where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.
Hallowe’en now – and this really seems to me to have taken off in the last fifteen years or so – is marked by many as something of a gore fest. The more horrific and scarier the better. Ok, scary is one thing and of course Samhain is the time when the veil between our world and the otherworld is at its thinnest so any kind of otherworldly being might put in an appearance. But I will lay my cards on the table here and say that the whole blood and gore and frightfest doesn’t appeal to me at all. I don’t like horror movies or gory stuff (I will admit to watching The Walking Dead though – sometimes with a cushion close by) and I’ve never understood the appeal. But if its how people want to mark Hallowe’en then who am I to argue? I suppose at least it has some links to the festival’s origins in Samhain when who knew what Otherworldly beings might be among us? Two things I really don’t like though: the so-called sexy costumes, which have NOTHING to do with the festival and are just fancy dress, and secondly the term ‘Happy Hallowe’en’. Its just too Americanised (a generalisation I know!) and too saccharine for me.
As I finish this post the sun is almost set. Samhain is upon us. The wheel has turned, the veil has thinned. Its time to reflect upon the darkness and to restore ourselves ready for the coming of spring. A blessed Samhain to you all.