Because my jobs include monitoring Patheos Pagan writing books, I spend a lot of time reading about how people celebrate the sabbats. Most often the practices of others are pretty familiar to me, and other times not. For a variety of reasons it often feels like my Samhain practices are untraditional, and that as a Witch, I’m emphasizing different things than many of my peers.
There are a lot of articles on Patheos Pagan about troublesome ancestors. Every time I stumble across one it strikes me just how much different my practice must be to the individuals who wrestle with those issues. I simply don’t work with or honor my ancestors, not at Samhain or any other time of the year.
I’ve never understood why I should be worried about people I’ve never met from hundreds of years ago who don’t share my values. If I had a time machine and could go and meet my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather from two hundred years ago he would most likely hate me, and I him. Our experiences just would not align. Also, as a believer in reincarnation, honoring anything beyond my grandparents has never made sense to me. Aren’t the spirits of my ancestors incarnated in new bodies?
I don’t doubt the reality of people who have experiences with their ancestors, or feel called to honor their ancestors. It’s just not something that I have never felt called to do. And perhaps certain families of spirits value different things? That certainly seems sensible to me.
This is not to suggest that I ignore the dead at Samhain. I honor my grandparents and my cat Princess, but I don’t think of them as my ancestors.* (They are my beloved dead.) I also honor the Mighty Dead of the Craft, but as most of those individuals were either alive in my lifetime, or died no more than twenty years from my birth. The veil is indeed thin at Samhain, but the spirits who visit my home are fewer than most.
I MAY NOT SAMHAIN ON SAMHAIN
My coven’s outdoor, masks required, socially distanced Samhain ritual is on October 30, which is not surprising to me. I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated Samhain in any extensive sort of way on the actual day of the sabbat. Most of the rituals we’ve done in honor of the sabbat have been on the weekends closest to the holiday. (I remember Samhain rituals as early as October 16 and as late as November 11, it’s always been a season and not a day.)
October 31 for Ari and I has generally been a social holiday. We pass out candy and then do something with friends in the evening. The last few years we’ve visited a nearby household, whose place and neighborhood are generally super-festive. This year that probably won’t happen, but I’m sure we’ll still stay close to home and not take part in a ritual. (We might slip out for a late night drink at one of our local outdoor restaurants–in costume of course.)
I’m also not concerned in the least about “Astrological Samhain.” Samhain feels more like Samhain to me when my neighbors porches contain glowing jack-o-lanterns and not rotting pieces of orange mush. I’ve always found more power in our sabbats when it feels like everyone around me is also celebrating them.
I feel like I’ve been celebrating Samhain since October when my garden began to give up the ghost. The dying sunflowers in my backyard have been a constant reminder of how the Wheel of the Year is turning, and how close death is to my doorstep. Even if we weren’t in position to hold a ritual I still think my Samhain would have been meaningful this year because of it too.
Samhain is my spiritual observance, Halloween is my secular celebration. While Samhain and Halloween are most likely related in some way, the connections are probably thinner than most people think, and I’m comfortable with that. How people choose to celebrate Halloween, or what they honor for that holiday, has no baring on my life as a Witch or my practice at (and enjoyment of) Samhain.
The other day I saw someone lamenting the amount of “green witches” that can be seen every October. The green with is a rather new trope, only dating back to 1939 and The Wizard of Oz. The movie adventure of young Dorothy Gale was so popular it affected how people view witches, with Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West becoming the definitive version of the Fairy Tale Evil Witch. The Wicked Witch of the West is iconic and had a huge impact on everything that came after.
Besides, The Wizard of Oz is pretty neutral when it comes to Witches. There are good Witches and bad Witches, which isn’t much different from real life. While Witchcraft is certainly not inherently bad, we all know a few “bad Witches.” (And if you don’t, good for you! I wish I walked in your ruby slippers.)
SAMHAIN IS MY GATEWAY TO YULE
Unlike many Witches, Samhain is not my favorite sabbat. It’s fine for what it is, and it’s often especially meaningful from a spiritual perspective, but I truly love Yule. Many people lament the bleed-through that occurs during the Fall, with Halloween decorations often slotted next to the Christmas ones, but it’s always been fine with me. Besides, the two holidays (and to a lesser extent the American holiday of Thanksgiving) share a lot of similar practices.
Dressing up for the holiday? That’s most likely a Yuletide tradition that was later added to Halloween. Costumes are still a part of the Yule season too, they can be seen in Newfoundland Mummers traditions, and the big Mummers parade in Philadelphia on New Year’s Day. And what’s trick or treat other than a different form of wassailing and Misrule? It’s all related.
Halloween and Yuletide are also celebrated in similar ways. They are both social holidays, in ways most American holidays are not. We celebrate both Halloween and the December holidays with parties for adults, and activities for the kids. Most certainly there are differences, but neither is celebrated like Labor Day or even Easter. (When was the last time you went to a booze-filled Easter party?)
Spiritually Samhain and Yule share a lot of attributes too. The veil just doesn’t close on November 3, it’s still thin into February. Up until two hundred years ago Christmas was celebrated with ghost stories and things that go bump in the night. I love the Krampus, but he wasn’t always nice. My Midwinter sabbat celebrations tend to be a bit more celebratory than my Samhain ones, but there’s a stillness around both of them that’s sacred to me.
When people talk about “The Holidays” I can’t help but think of the season that runs from mid-October through the first week of January. It’s the one time of year when people actively believe in the magickal and the supernatural (what’s Santa if not a supernatural being?). For three months the world is awash in magickal thinking and it’s glorious. The wave begins in October and doesn’t end until early January. I love it.
*Merriam-Webster defines an ancestor as: “one from whom a person is descended and who is usually more remote in the line of descent than a grandparent (emphasis Mankey)