Hello hello! It is Halloween, my favorite holiday. But, being Pagan, I call it Samhain (SOW-en). I just thought I’d share some tidbits about this day.
First and foremost, there is no god of the underworld called Samhain. This incorrect information has circulated for ages in newspapers and on news shows. Despite numerous corrections of this falsehood, it still persists. Samhain is the name of the Pagan New Year and last harvest celebration in a cycle of eight major holidays known as Sabbats. Each month there is also a minor holiday for the full moon known as an Esbat. Pagans believe that the veil between the land of the living and the land of the dead is thinnest at this time of year, especially between October 31st and November 3rd (shifting slightly year to year as our modern calendar varies a bit from the natural cycles). Thus, as well as being Pagan New Year, Samhain is also a time for communing with and honoring one’s ancestors and others who have passed beyond the veil. It sounds a bit similar to All Saint’s Eve due to the fact that the Romans tended to incorporate traditions into their own form of Christianity as they conquered territory. It made converting the people of conquered lands more palatable for those being converted if there were bits of their preexisting practices interwoven so that the new religion wasn’t entirely alien to them. This is why many Christian celebrations still bear certain bits of Pagan lore and imagery.
Some of the most notable Halloween traditions are hold-overs from the days before Christianity spread through the world. Jack-o-lanterns originated as a means to frighten away any evil spirits which might walk the world while the veil is thin or, alternatively, as a light to guide the ancestors home. Originally they were turnips and other autumn root vegetables. They were carved, lit with candles and hung in windows and doorways as protective wards. The tradition of dressing up in costumes was originally a means of keeping any spirits which might wish to do a person harm from recognizing them. Scary costumes might convince the frightening entities that a person was one of them and, thus, grant safety from them. Trick-or-treating arose from the tradition of the harvest feast. Village children were sent about from house to house to gather items for the women to incorporate into a communal dinner and celebration. Those who were stingy and refused to donate to the feast were subjected to pranks by the children for their lack of community spirit. The inclusion of animal symbolism such as owls, bats and cats generally stemmed from regional beliefs that these animals were closely linked to the dead, a means of communicating with them. Bobbing for apples originated in a belief that apples were a preferred food of the dead. When an apple was retrieved from the water it was then taken to a sacred place and buried as a gift for the dead. This also served to continue the cycle of life as the apples often sprouted fresh trees. It was considered an omen of blessing to the one who buried the apple if it sprouted a sapling in the Spring.
Through the ages, as the Christian church grew, many of these traditions were eliminated from church practices. They were no longer necessary to appease heathen converts and, thus, pushed out to become more secular practices. Other aspects, such as honoring the dead, remained a part of the religious practices. The imagery of witches as evil, green skinned hags sprang from the church itself as part of it’s long war against women who were trained as naturalistic healers and midwives. They spread the belief that these women gained their knowledge from Satan and should be wiped out because they felt that these women were a threat to the absolute power of the church. These images became more popularized throughout the various witch hunts and linger today in secular media despite long protests from various Pagan organizations. Many churches don’t celebrate Halloween in the more secular way any longer. They use it as a day to remind their flocks of the pitfalls of evil and/or a celebration of God’s bounty. But the core idea, tied to the natural changes of the seasons, still remains rooted in the older Pagan beliefs subverted by the spread of the Roman Empire.
I hope this was educational. If it makes you angry, there’s not much I can do about that. It’s just how traditions evolve. They are built on traditions that already existed and they mutate and change as society changes and the needs of the people evolve.