Samhain: The Darkest of Days

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There’s just something about October.

Ever since I was a child, for many reasons the tenth month of the year was always my favorite. The weather was starting to feel cool which, for those of you who live on or near the gulf coast know, was a welcome relief from the scorching heat and sticky humidity. Grocery stores began filling their aisles with candy and costumes, network television would inundate our screens with specials and classics like The Great Pumpkin. But mostly, there’s a feeling in the air, a buzz or excitement that I never could fully explain. I also really like to dress up in elaborate costumes and over-the-top make up (cosplay enthusiast here), so the holiday truly appealed to me in both tradition and aesthetic.

I first encountered anti-Halloween sentiment when I was in my pre-teen years. While I’d certainly come across doors and porches in my previous trick-or-treating days, it wasn’t until I was eleven when somebody, a classmate of mine, actually told me that to celebrate the holiday was akin to Satanic worship. It didn’t make any sense to me, and given my naturally curious nature, I asked him to tell me why he felt that way. He didn’t quite give me a straight answer, but the best I could understand was that because the holiday was based in pagan tradition and not Christianity, it should therefore be shunned and dismissed. Essentially, at least for him, it boiled down to, “It’s evil because I say it’s evil.” At the time, I didn’t give his words much stock, especially since he was clearly trying to come between me, a zombie costume, and a ton of candy. As I got older, though, I encountered more and more people who felt the same way he did, particularly after we moved to a small town, and it made me start wondering why they felt so strongly about it.

Of course, I knew the pagan origin of Halloween, but I never really thought much about it beyond Dia de los Muertos. Now, my relationship with Hispanic culture is a strange one. I am very much aware of my ethnicity, and I am proud of it, but at the same time, my parents didn’t exactly prioritize making sure we understood the significance or traditions. It’s sad when I look back on it, but the honest to goodness truth is that, for the longest time, being Hispanic didn’t seem to make much of a difference to me. It was a fact of my life, but it didn’t affect it. Unless you count the times my grandmother would visit and lament about how her grandchildren weren’t ‘brown’ enough, how they didn’t know their history or their culture. Maybe that’s why when my mother would set up the ofrenda, I never really paid much attention. She didn’t volunteer any information in regards to its significance, and all I knew was that I wasn’t allowed to eat the sweet breads she set out by the candles. I do remember asking her one time what she was doing and she told me she was ‘remembering those who came before us.’ The answer was enough to satisfy me, but again, I didn’t really understand the significance.

I do now. I know that the ofrenda and the offerings are about more than remembering and honoring. I know the history, the belief that during this time, the veil between the world of the living and the dead is so thin that our ancestors and loved ones can pass between. I also know that this belief or tradition preceded the Spanish and that, like many things, it was ‘adopted’ by Christianity so as to make conversion an easier pill to swallow. It’s also not a unique narrative to Dia de los Muertos. Many cultures, particular the Celts, held that this time of year was sacred and celebrated an elaborate festival that would one day morph into what we now know as Halloween and All Souls Day.

It is from the Celts that neopagans derive most of what we know of Samhain. Celtic worship revolved around the wheel of the year which was marked on the four solstices and equinoxes by the fire festivals. The wheel is divided into two halves – light and dark – and Samhain, meaning ‘summer’s end’ was meant to signify the beginning of the dark days. Like with Dia de los Muertos, the Celts believed that during this time, the dead and trickster gods were able to travel easily between their realm and the realm of the living. In order to appease them, offerings of crops and animal sacrifices were made. There are accounts of children dressing up as well, though the reality is that while we are able to pinpoint the origin, there’s still much we don’t know about the earliest practitioners of Samhain. It is, however, generally accepted that this was a time of reverence, where divination was heavily practiced due to the veil being at its thinnest, and that of all the fire festivals, Samhain was considered the most sacred. The reason we don’t know much more is due to the fact that early into the first century, the traditions would be adopted and reframed by early Christians.

Modern day Samhain celebrations may look different now depending on how you practice. For example, a Celtic celebration of the fire festival will not look like a Wiccan’s, and even among Wiccans, given the rise of solitary practice, traditions vary. For some, it is an elaborate affair with bonfires, costumes, a lavish feast, and much more. For others, it’s private and small yet just as sacred. Personally, I always make sure to have a flame lit. Whether its the firepit or a candle if the weather does not allow, there’s a fire burning. I also like to decorate my altar with oranges and blacks, carve a small jack-o-lantern, with an offering of apples and pomegranites (fruits of life and death). Then I meditate and prepare for a divination ritual. This year, my sister and I will be doing a silent supper, setting an empty place at the head of the table in honor of the dead. Of course, as always, there will be an ofrenda with pictures of our deceased loved ones and ancestors.

If you’re new to paganism or Wicca, do not worry too much about trying to nail every detail. Your practice will evolve, and you will find a way to celebrate that works for you. The way I’m celebrating this year does not look like how it has in the past as I am learning what I connect with and what doesn’t suit. It’s also a strange time, and so plans to gather and celebrate with others might not be possible. Take advantage of the sacred time, embrace the thinning of the veil, and this year, bask in the awesome light of the full moon as we honor the dead and mark the beginning of the dark days!

Blessed be!

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