(I challenged some of the other bloggers here at Patheos to write up what Halloween means to them. Halloween is one of our shared holidays; all sorts of people celebrate it, and they do so for all kinds of reasons. I’m looking forward to hearing some of those reasons and I hope you’ll join me in those moments of discovery. Feel free to leave your reflections on Halloween in the comments section.)
I think of the time around Halloween as “Hallowtide,” it’s a season like Thanksgiving through New Year’s. It encompasses a wide range of feelings and emotions and contains both secular and religious elements. As a Pagan there are rituals to prepare for and attend, and as a mundane person there are parties, trick or treaters, and costumes all to worry about. In quieter moments Halloween ushers in the late autumn; it’s a time of falling leaves, chillier nights, and increasing darkness. Halloween is many things and I try to find as much room for all of its different and divergent facets as possible.
At its simplest Hallowtide is a celebration of the harvest and a reflection on the turn of the seasons. Aside from ghouls and ghosts, the things that decorate our homes in October are a reflection of the natural world. My living room is currently a collection of decorative pumpkins and maize and the place-mats on my kitchen table have hay-bales and scarecrows upon them. When people celebrate “Harvest Festivals” they are celebrating one of the oldest (and most certainly pagan) traditions in the history of humankind. You can try and run from the word Halloween all you want, but Halloween is a Harvest Festival. People are drawn to holidays that reflect the Wheel of the Year, and the days and weeks leading up to Halloween are about where we are on the celestial calendar.
There’s a stillness that comes with the quickening of Autumn. The chill air moves us indoors as does the increasing darkness. The colors painted upon the leaves of the trees are both beautiful and bittersweet. No other season marks its arrival as triumphantly as the Fall; and only the most jaded are immune from its call. There’s something about that first cold night of the year that makes me stop and open myself up to it all. A hush falls on the land and the beauty of the season cries out to be adored.
Halloween has transformed its self over the years into America’s second biggest holiday. While the foolish have sought to diminish it and remove all traces of it from our schools and the public square it just continues to grow. Like the best of America’s shared holidays (especially Christmas) it’s a children’s holiday; and many kids are still allowed to dress up and beg for treats in what feels like a time honored tradition (but is really only seven decades old). Both Halloween and Christmas bring a sense of adventure and wonderment to the hearts of the young, and it’s hard not to get swept up in it. The energy of trick or treaters is completely infectious for instance, and I enjoy handing out candy almost as much as I enjoyed receiving it when I was young.
Halloween has also become a holiday for adults. It’s a time for parties and dress-up, almost like a country-wide carnival for those looking to escape day to day society for awhile. A Halloween Party where the costumes are so good you can’t tell friend from foe (or at least best friend from acquaintance) is a special kind of treat, bringing a little bit of mystery into a world most of us think we have at least marginally figured out. I’m an earthy enough kind of guy that I’ll also admit to liking the license Hallowtide gives me to indulge in a seasonally appropriate beverage (like hard cider), but drinking isn’t the escape, the escape comes from a world turned on its head for at least a few hours or a couple of weekends.Halloween used to be a season for pranks and high-jinks and while that’s been largely lost it still rears its head on occasion. When I see toilet paper decorating neighborhood trees on November first I can’t help but smile a little bit. That’s Halloween at its most basic when it was far more “trick” than “treat.” Most of us don’t indulge in such shenanigans anymore, but I find the season to be one giant prank. Somehow a vast conglomerate of forces has convinced America that playing fantasy for a couple of hours is a worthy enterprise; it’s a shame we don’t play the game more often.
In addition to the candy, costumes, and harvest-symbols, Halloween is a time of year associated with death and fear. Some of this is most certainly a cultural remnant of times past, when herds were culled and death was simply in the air. Much of it reflects where we are now; trees lose their leaves, animals hibernate, and frost kills the plants in the gardens. It’s impossible to stand on your porch and not see at least a little bit of death. Halloween allows us to put our fears on display and exorcise those demons in a figurative sense (though be careful when the shadows fall across your path deep in the night). There’s something in our psyches that likes to feel fear, and Halloween is the one time of year when that becomes completely acceptable in our social circles. Even kids read ghost stories that keep them up at night during October, and when they do they are tapping into an ancient and primal part of themselves.
For most of us Pagans Halloween has another name and a different identity, Samhain; the celebration of the year’s final harvest and a time to reunite with and acknowledge those that we have lost in this life. Too many religions simply bury their dead and expect the living to simply move on, but it’s never been that easy. The voices of those we’ve loved and lost still call to us and that grief needs to be acknowledged. Samhain is when I tell my Grandparents that I still love them and that they are still with me even though we are all separated in space and time. When the fates line up and my candles flicker just right in the moon’s silvery light I swear I can feel them near me once again. Samhain is an acknowledgement of death side by side with the promise that something else lies beyond that door.
Halloween is many things: party, celebration, sacred day, children’s holiday, and harvest festival. Like the best of holidays put upon this Earth it is what you make of it. It can be mundane or holy, festive or forlorn and all sorts of things in between. It calls to all of us to make the best out of it, and even better, most everyone else will be playing along too.
Happy Halloween & Blessed Samhain!
1. A “pumpkin patch” in Half Moon Bay California.
2. Hellenic harvest celebration in honor of Dionysus.
4. A real spider that made my wife scream last Autumn.
5. My grandparents, Mick and Marie, the most important part of my Samhain celebration. I love and miss you both!