What in Sam Hain?

What in Sam Hain? October 19, 2013

Let me begin by saying, I love Halloween.  I’ve always loved Halloween.  For one thing, it is the only time of the year a straight guy can be flamboyant without apology in this homophobic American culture.  I come by my love for Halloween naturally.  It’s my mother’s favorite holiday.  She used to make our costumes herself — and not just one but usually three, for each of us — one for school, one for church, and one for trick-or-treating.  And we almost always won the costume contests.  I love the costumes, the trick-or-treating, the whole scary-but-fun atmosphere.

So when I became Pagan, I was ready to embrace Halloween as a Pagan holy day.  I was very disappointed to learn that most Neo-Wiccans/Neo-Pagans celebrate Samhain a kind of Pagan Day of the Dead or All Souls Day, with little to no connection to the secular celebration of Halloween.  This explains the befuddled look I got from the Neo-Wiccan leader of my local CUUPS group years ago, when I, new to the group, asked her if we should wear costumes to the Samhain celebration.

First of all, there is only one major American holiday that corresponds directly with a Neo-Pagan holiday, and it’s Halloween.  Christmas/Yule is a close second, with the moveable Easter feast coming in third, since it sometimes falls on or near the spring equinox.   (Memorial Day and Labor Day are loosely related to Beltane and Mabon in that they mark the beginning and end of the American cultural summer.)  But Halloween is ready-made for Pagan appropriation.  Sure, it’s completely secularized (just like much of Christmas is).    Jason Mankey has given a great history of the secular origins of Halloween here.  But despite its modern and secular origins, Halloween just begs to be Pagan.  I actually think those Christians who freak out about the (small-p) pagan-ness of Halloween are on to something.  I mean, lots of us Pagans are real witches for gods’ sake!

Halloween was made for us!  For one thing, it’s the only time of the year when we can do weird things around a bonfire at night in our backyard and not draw too much attention to ourselves.  And while its origins are not ancient, it is a great example of what Jason Mankey calls “Rustic Paganism”.  Like Morris Dancing, it isn’t an ancient pagan practice, but it’s a practice that feels pagan.

I undertand that many Neo-Pagans associate the day with their ancestors because the Celts supposedly believed that the “veil between the worlds” is thinnest on this day.  And I respect that.  But for me, nothing about Halloween makes me think of my great-grand parents.  And then there is the high-spirited nature of Halloween.  While I suppose a Day of the Dead could be a festive day, like it is in Mexico, visiting graves on Memorial Day is always a somber event for me.  And it’s just hard to maintain the an attitude appropriate for one’s ancestors when everyone else around you is having an American Mardi Gras.

Rather than the ancestors, Halloween and this time of the year in general call to my mind another Pagan motif entirely: the Wild Hunt.  For me, Halloween marks the time on the Wheel of the Year when the Dark God is crowned as the Holly King and leads the Wild Hunt as it emerges from Underworld to roam the winter countryside, with the Dark Queen riding beside him in her devouring aspect as the Huntress.  I explain the connection to my kids this way:

“The legend of the Wild Hunt is behind many of the traditions of Halloween.  According to legend, people wear masks to scare the ghosts and goblins that come out of the underworld at this time of the year.  Because, if the Wild Hunt catches a person walking alone at night during this time of the year, it will carry them off to the underworld and they will become a part of the Wild Hunt themselves.  But if you are wearing a scary mask, the Wild Hunt will think you are one of them, and will pass you by.”

Of course, this is not the true history behind the tradition of trick-or-treating, but it fits nicely, at least to my mind.

I like Halloween as a holy day so much that I break my general rule about celebrating the cross-quarters on their actual celestial date, which fall about from about a couple of days to a week after their traditional dates.  The autumn cross-quarter this year falls on November 7.

I even like the name “Hallow’een” or “All Hallow’s Eve”.   Hallows means “holy”, so All Hallows means “All Holy”, and to me that fits with the meaning of the day as a time for remembering the dark gods, because to Pagans they are holy too.  The name “Hallow’een” says to me, “It’s all ‘hallow’ or sacred, even the dark and the frightening.”

I know lots of Pagans are attached by now to the name Samhain (pron. sah-win).  In general, I dislike naming our holidays unphonetically, but at least there is some pagan precedent for the name, unlike Mabon.   (The name originates in the Tochmarc Emire, and its use is consistent with the choice of other Irish names for the cross-quarter days.)  It does bug me though when some people call it the Pagan New Year.  For one thing, Pagans don’t treat it like the New Year, in spite of calling it that.  For another, I have my doubts about whether it really was the Celtic New Year.  According to Ronald Hutton, it is true that Samhain was the most important of the four Celtic festivals, but this does not necessarily mean it was considered the New Year’s Day.  The Ulster tale of Echtra Nerai or Tain Bo Aingen, the “Adventures of Nera or the Cattle Raid of Angen”, refers to Samhain as “the end of the year”.  It is possible, however, that it was meant that Samhain was the “[beginning of the] end of the year”, i.e., winter, without also representing the beginning of the new year, i.e., spring.  Generally, it was much more common for ancient pagan peoples throughout the world to observe the New Year on or around the winter solstice or the spring equinox.  Yule makes much more sense as the Pagan New Year to me.

I do think it is very important to have a Pagan holy day honoring our ancestors though; I just think it should be separate.  For that reason, it makes sense to me to do something like the Catholic All Hallows Tridium and celebrate All Hallows on October 31st and then do a Pagan “All Souls” Day later, like on November 2.  We could call it Pagan Remembrance Day or Ancestor Day or something like that.  I’m sure this would bug some formerly-Catholic Pagans, but I love (re-)Paganizing Christian motifs, so it doesn’t both me.

Tell me what you think.  Is Halloween a holy day for you?  Do you experience any dissonance with honoring the ancestors while others are trick-or-treating?

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  • I’m sort of an odd duck…I don’t honor my personal ancestors at Halloween/Samhain. I like the name Samhain, pronounced “Sav-ain”, like the Irish name of the month November because this holiday marks the end of my ritual year. The time from November till after Yule is my fallow season of personal study and inner work. Because of my work with my labyrinth(The Walk of the Fallen), Samhain is my main annual honoring of the war dead. I tried to wrap my head around the Hellene Nykesia…which falls in August or September; but it never took and since that was a moveable feast, it was endless confusion.
    When my children were small, we still allowed trick or treating as a secular celebration, it was no issue whatsoever.

  • Smallbrownbird

    I celebrate and party with my family (etc.) during the earlier part of the evening and then spend the late hours to dawn in meditation and vigil with Hela (Norse Queen of Helheim). Best of both worlds!

  • Kristin

    A bit about Samhain being the Celtic new year – To the Irish at least, where the holiday comes from, saw the year as beginning in darkness, not light. From what we can tell, the holiday was celebrated starting at sunset, and ending at sunset the following day. So, for those following a Celtic path there is -plenty- of precedent for it being the New Year.

    And, ancestors are not just those to whom you are blood related. Not saying everyone has to work with ancestors, but doing so is much deeper than honoring your own family members.

    As for Halloween? I disagree. To me, there isn’t anything Pagan about the secular celebration of Halloween. I don’t particularly care for Halloween, though. Most of the things I associate with Halloween remind me of the things that I’d rather people do not correlate with Pagan religions.

  • Traya Moon Gem Wind

    is a cool way to celebrate Halloween and it also honored the dead
    Its a soul tree here what u need and do u need paper and a pen
    lanterns purple(orange) and black candles elecrtic works too first
    write on the paper to your dears that has past its can be long or
    short as u want as long its respectful if u have heat with them please
    word it way that is still respectful once ur done with ur note fold
    into fours and stick a candle over it l light it and say with this
    light i honor thee the lantern and put on a tree or a clothes line

  • Cryssi Van Laarhoven

    I celebrate it the way I’ve always been. Halloween is my favorite day (2nded to my birthday) and if I wanna do what ‘Halloween’ is known for, all power to me.

  • survivorcrone

    I live in Salem – we have people who perform on TV to try to make Charlie Sheen behave or come in from out of town and claim to live here and swap wives with someone else – all for the sake of the almighty dollar. The month of October is a month long festival and the only thing sacred about it and 10/31, is who can make the most money.

  • Living The Wheel

    Halloween is a holy day for me, as well. I grew up viewing Halloween as my “New Year” celebration. My entire year revolved around it. I’ve always been in tune with Halloween. I was also pretty disappointed in Samhain as a holy day.

    In the past, I’ve always had to mix the two. Do Halloween until about 10pm and then get the Samhain stuff going. I’ve also done Halloween on the 31st and Samhain on the 1st of November because my wiccan group did it that way for awhile. Nowadays, I have Halloween on the 31st and I don’t celebrate anything else until the 7th of November when I celebrate Mid-Autumn. I don’t even do anything that could be recognizable as Samhain related anymore except a dumb supper which happens on Halloween night at 5:30pm and also my meditation for the dead which happens for one hour from 11pm to midnight on Halloween night.

    It’s a pretty emotional time for me.

    At my Mid-Autumn celebration it’s 100% harvest related. Nothing Samhain about it. Just a big last harvest meal. Pumpkin chili this year, I think.

    • Brian Michael Shea

      Mmmm. Pumpkin chili. Sounds delicious. Then again, anything pumpkin sounds delicious!

  • Costel Hildr

    I celebrate the Dead as well on this day. This year, because of the day it lands on, I’ll be celebrating it on Nov 1, however, I have a lot of friends, a fair amount of them non-pagan, coming over and we’ll be dressing in masks and costumes and setting our candles and food (and personal items) for the Dead as well as generally carousing, drinking, and making noise. That is, however, to me, the nature of celebrating the Dead: making a lot of noise and drinking. (This celebration was requested to me by my fulltrui, Hel.) I do agree that it’s sad to lose the dressing-up and hunting aspect of Halloween, however I do not think they need to be separate. In my experience, the Dead wish for drinking and noise and merriment. (And in the case of last year, where I did not have a party for them, I noted that I saw many of the Dead crowding around parties because it was their “time” for fun and they were attracted to the celebrations.)

    • Brian Michael Shea

      I like that. Now that is how I can actually get into ancestor reverence!

  • JasonMankey

    I don’t think I’ve ever done a Samhain Ritual on Samhain, so Halloween and Samhain have always been separate celebrations. We do Samhain on one of the weekends closest to the actual date, and we celebrate Halloween whenever it’s called for. We might go to a Halloween Party on the 19th, and then hand out candy on the 31st. Halloweentide isn’t a day, it’s a weeks long celebration with certain traditions falling in different spots on a year to year basis.

  • Kate McCredie

    As a Southern Hemisphere Pagan, it’s rather easy to keep the two
    separate. Samhain is the end of April for us, so gratuitous partying at
    the end of October is…well…just a precursor to Spring fever/Beltane
    fun. But because they’re so out of season, none of the festivals work
    here the way they do in the Northern Hemisphere. We have snowflake
    decorations and snowmen everywhere in December but, as it’s our
    midsummer, a snowy or even just cold Xmas is very unlikely, and it all
    seems a bit… odd.

    • Wow, snowflake decorations at the summer solstice?! That is weird!

      • Brian Michael Shea

        Well we have that here too in South Florida around Christmas, as well as autumn leaves, pumpkins, wheat and other harvest/autumn imagery, as well as bunnies, chicks, spring flowers(like daffodils and tulips and the like, which don’t grow here), and pastel colors for Easter(well we have pastel colors all year round, just look at the buildings!). And it’s warm, tropical and pretty much green all year round here, with flowers blooming all the time. There are actually some trees that turn colors and/or lose their leaves, but that happens anytime from December to March, depending on the weather and the species of tree. Well, it can get chilly sometimes in December here, so sometimes the winter imagery isn’t SO out of place, if you are in the right mood. And come to think of it, our vegetable growing season STARTS in October!

  • Actually, for me it is both, and I feel completely comfortable with it that way. But then, I’m not one for very sombre ancestor reverence. I acknowledge all of my ancestors in every ritual (and I really mean all, extending to the origins of life and even back to the beginning of time), but Halloween/Samhain/Oíche Shamhna is partly for me a time to remember those relatives whom I actually knew. But I’m not big into graveside or feeling sombre – I know those relatives would prefer to be remembered in celebration and silliness.

    I like your association with the Wild Hunt – that is how Samhain feels to me too, though I hadn’t consciously made the link. Samhain has always been a time for me to celebrate my “witchy-ness” – it’s the only time of year I have ever actually considered calling myself a witch. It’s all about personal power for me, I guess, as well as acknowledging the dark and the shadow and mystery, and revelling in that.

    My birthday being on Halloween has obviously shaped how it feels to me, too. As I change age, it does sort of feel like a new year. It’s a time for me to assess where I’m at, to really check in with myself. But primarily it’s all about celebration, as I am big into celebrating birthdays. I will do a private ritual at some point, but Samhain is the least reverential holy day for me, usually, as my birthday takes precedence.

  • blackenedphoenix

    How ironic that you are talking about people who don’t celebrate the secular side of Samhain when I just read an article about how Samhain has become too commercialized. http://www.inklingsnews.com/c/2013/10/22/consumerism-turns-festive/#sthash.bojSi6mo.dpuf

  • GreenEyedLilo

    My coven squares that circle by passing out candy while we cook and catch up. (The ones with children take their children out.) Then about 8, we turn off all the lights, take down the “Welcome Trick or Treaters” sign, and start ritual. The parents used to worry about kids being confused, until they started saying things like “We put on our costumes and celebrate Halloween with the other kids, and then we take off the costumes and get serious about the Gods and our ancestors. That’s Samhain.” Kids get more than many adults give them credit for!

  • Thoron Woodling

    Where do these Pumpkin Stories fall? Are they sacred or secular? http://www.jesterbear.com/CPCholidays/JackOLantern.html

  • medusawink

    Just following on from Kate’s comment about the Southern Hemisphere…there are some interesting complications south of the equator that are worth noting. For Pagans yes it is Beltane here – this is a seasonal celebration and it is not in question. The wider society is celebrating a superficial comic-book Halloween without any recall to it’s seasonal significance. Actually it has more to do with the commercial exploitation of a celebration that until recently had little to no recognition here. But it’s fun – all the ghosty-ghouly dressing up and spooktacular partying , and there’s no denying the fact that adults as well as kids are getting into Halloween.
    The truth is that here in Australia the dominant culture has no seasonal celebrations at all. The reversal of our seasons has meant that we have lost contact with the meaning of seasonal rites that still prevail in the Northern Hemisphere.
    There are other rites that prevail however – All Souls Night, All Souls Day, The Day of The Dead…these are celebrated by Christians as part of their religious calendar. The Dead are still being called, the Dead are still returning and it is happening at the same time as Beltane. So while Pagans are celebrating the Rites of Spring and the return of the countryside to green, there is also the unmistakable vibe of the returning Dead. This is not about the veil between the worlds being thinner at the crux of autumn/winter and therefore the best time for the dead to return. This is about centuries of cultural expectation for the living and the dead, that between October 31 and November 2 the Dead will return, and this is the time to honour them.
    So what to do? I wouldn’t dream of depriving my daughter of her Halloween fun any more than I would deny her Christmas or Easter…we go to the local Halloween celebrations and have lots of fun. Beltane is celebrated for what it is – a major Sabbat, a seasonal rite. And a small table is set for the dead with a vase of flowers, a jug and glass(es) of water.
    I would be interested to hear if other Southern Hemisphere Pagans recognise the complexities of our Pagan calendar, and what they do about it.

  • Alicia

    Halloween is definitely the night of the Wild Hunt for me and I completely agree with you on the idea of using the Tridium! For me Samhain is a 3 day ritual, starting with honoring the primordial forces represented by the hunt, then on the 1st honoring those who have come before – the ones who have greatly influenced or helped me in some way and have since passed, and the 2nd is for honoring my genetic ancestors. The order and feel of the rituals follows the line of summer expansiveness to winter’s introspection. I’ve linked to your post on my own blog: http://signsandsingularities.com/2013/10/31/samhain-halloween-and-the-wild-hunt/

  • Brian Michael Shea

    That is EXACTLY how I feel! I just really can’t get into the whole
    ancestor reverance/honoring the dead aspect, I will always love
    Halloween as Halloween! I’ve always loved it and Samhain has never
    replaced my feelings for it in any major way. Also I’m just not that
    into the whole ancestor thing anyway. I tried for years to get into the
    whole ancestor reverence thing, I used to observe Samhain in quiet,
    personal way, although keeping all the Halloween trappings. I even
    remember in the 90’s me and my ex getting offended by The Nightmare
    Before Christmas! However, I decided one year to go out with some
    friends on Halloween night and I was hooked! Everyone out and about
    having fun and all the wonderful costumes, the glowing orange and purple
    lights and
    pumpkins! And now that I’ve moved to Miami, its even better. I just
    love the whole ‘Macabre Mardi Gras’ feeling of the night. The
    festiveness and revelery of it is thrilling. Last year, while on Lincoln
    Road in South Beach, after walking around and enjoying the scene, a
    friend of mine said to me”This is wonderful. Everyone is having a good
    time and happy, we should have these more often, year round. I bet there
    would be no more war if we had more of this kind of thing”. And I
    agreed. And I’ve been into the paranormal and unexplained, and I enjoy horror movies and fiction. So Halloween is A OK with me.

  • “It is the only time of the year a straight guy can be flamboyant without apology in this homophobic American culture” — unless, of course, one lives in New Orleans. We have Mardi Gras, and frankly I see guys wearing outrageous costumes year-round. It’s just the way we roll here and one of the things I love about this city.

    As always I try to extend the celebration. It starts with Hallowe’en and continues through Samhain and the Day of the Dead all the way to Astro-Samhain on the 7th. We celebrate Hallowe’en in traditional American style, trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. We honor our ancestors over the next week. It all fits together quite harmoniously in my mind.

  • emonyna .

    I’ve been following your blog for quite some time, but this is the first time I feel compelled to leave a comment. (A month late, but nevermind…)
    I absolutely agree with your view of Halloween, and the idea of having a separate day for ancestors is brilliant. Halloween is also my favourite holiday, and I always viewed it as too wild and too fun to associate with my ancestor.
    I love the story you tell your kids, and celebrating Halloween as the Wild Hunt actually made my heart beat faster. You gave me wonderful ideas for next year, and an amazing new perspective on the holiday.
    So thank you for posting this, truly.

    • Thanks emonyna! My pleasure. It’s alwAys great to hear that someone connected with my writing.