Samhain is probably the most popular and beloved of the witch’s Sabbats.  There’s just something about this time of year - that brisk snap in the air, the riot of color in the trees, the fresh scent of pumpkin pie and apple cider, and even the campy scarecrow and cotton cobwebs decorating your neighbor’s front porch.  I’ve heard it over and over again from countless witches that this is the best time of year to stock up on home décor – from skull themed party trays to ceramic witches with pointed hats; we love our Halloween themed goodies.  But peel away the endless bags of candy and this year’s most popular costume and what do we have left?  What were we celebrating before it became so commercialized?

                We find the roots of Halloween or All Hallows Eve in the Celtic Samhain (pronounced sow-in), meaning “summer’s end”.  This was the Celtic New Year, the end of summer and the growing season and the beginning of the cold, dark winter.  Ancient man could not rely on central heating and there was no quick run to the supermarket if the larder ran empty.  The winter months were a frightening time and it comes as no surprise that the Celts would associate this time of year with death.

                The Celtic peoples believed that the veil between the world of the living and the dead was at its thinnest during Samhain.  This allowed for the spirits of the deceased to cross over into the land of the living.  These spirits were believed to be both benevolent and malevolent.  The helpful spirits were said to aid in fortune telling and divination for the coming year while the baleful ghosts were wont to destroy crops and play pranks on the living.  A huge bonfire was erected by the Druids to make crop and animal sacrifices to appease the gods.  The people dressed in animal’s skins and masks so as not to be recognized by the malicious ghosts.  Bowls of food were placed outside the home to appease the spirits and keep them outside the home or to quell their wrath.  A plate of food was also left on the table for any benevolent ancestor who may wish to stop by.  Candles were also lit in the windowsills to help guide lost loved ones home.  “When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter…By the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites” (“History”).

                All Martyrs Feast was originally celebrated on May 13th, but was later moved to November 1st with recognition for the saints as an addition.  The Catholic Church named November 2nd All Soul’s Day (also referred to as All-hallows or All-hallowmas) to honor all dead in 1000 A.D.  The previous night falling upon the date that was once Samhain was then called All-hallows Eve and eventually Halloween.  This is one example of many in which people believe the church was attempting to replace an older observance with a church sanctioned one.  All-hallows was celebrated much the same as its predecessor was “with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils (“History”).  Trick or treating (or as it was called then, going a-souling) was probably born from the old practice of gifting “soul cakes” to the poor in exchange for prayers for the souls of the families dead.  The poorer families in the neighborhoods  traveled door to door begging for food, money, or ale and the church encouraged the more well to do families to gift the cakes.

                While Halloween wasn’t terribly popular with the original Protestant settlers in America, it did make its way to Maryland and throughout the southern colonies.  The traditional European celebrations mixed and mingled with those of the American Indians to solidify something more closely resembling our current Halloween activities.  They told ghost stories and read fortunes, sang and danced and celebrated the harvest.

                With the Irish potato famine of 1846 a new wave of immigrants flooded the states bringing their own traditions and the face of Halloween changed yet again with people dressing in costume and going door to door asking for money or food.  Young women used mirrors, apples peels, and string to divine for their future husbands.  In the late 1800’s there was a movement to remove anything scary or spooky from the holiday and make it more family oriented and by the 1950’s with the baby boom, Halloween transformed once more, becoming the beloved children’s holiday we are most familiar with.

                In connection with the Catholic holiday of All Soul’s Day, the people of Mexico celebrate Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead.  At midnight on October 31st the gates between the heavens and earth open and the spirits of the deceased children come through to be reunited with their families.  The adults are allowed to join the party on the next night.  In preparation for the return of the spirits, beautiful altars called ofrendas are erected and decorated with marigolds and cocks comb, sugar skulls and decorative skeletons.  Offerings are added to the altar in the form of foods, especially fruits and Day of the Dead bread called pan de muerto.  The adults get cigarettes and liquor while the children get toys and candy.  “They believe that happy spirits will provide protection, good luck and wisdom to their families” (Villalba).  Families move the celebration to the graveyard on November 2nd to clean the graves, play cards, talk, and even picnic.

                There are several Chinese celebrations that include ancestor veneration.  Qingming (also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day or Ancestor’s Day) is observed on the 15th day after the spring equinox.  Participants visit the graves of their ancestors to offer prayer, clean up plots, and leave gifts of food, wine, or other small items like chopsticks and joss paper (representing money).  There is a practice of leaving willow branches on gates which is said to ward off evil spirits.  Qingming is also celebrated with spring outings and kite flying (Wu).    The Daoist, Taoist, and Buddhist celebration of the Hungry Ghost Festival is observed on the 15th night of the 7th month (falling in July or August).  In fact, the entire month is called Hungry Ghost Month.  It is believed that after the ghosts have wandered about for several weeks, they’ve probably gotten pretty hungry.   Participants must perform rituals to protect themselves from malevolent spirits or to appease their deceased ancestors.  These rituals include food preparation, the burning of incense, and the display of family tablets.  Offerings are left for the dead in the form of ritually prepared foods, incense, and papier-mache replicas of fine items such as cars, clothing, or other luxury goods.  It is not uncommon for participants to stand before the family tablets and report good and bad deeds to receive a blessing or a punishment.  A full plate of food is left at the dinner table for ancestors to dine.  Ancestor veneration is also practiced on Double Ninth Day, though the date isn’t specifically set aside for that.  Falling on the ninth day of the ninth month, the day is considered to have too much yang and not enough yin energy and is therefore out of balance and a dangerous day.  The rituals performed during this day are meant to protect the observer and paying homage to one’s ancestors with various gifts and offerings is meant to protect that ancestor in the afterlife (Stanton).

                Japanese Buddhists have a similar celebration in mid-August called Obon in veneration of their deceased ancestors.  To appease the spirits observers add fruits and vegetables, flower arrangements, and chochin lanterns to their altars.  On the first day of the celebration, families gather at the graves of their ancestors and light the chochin lanterns to guide spirits home.  A similar practice is observed in other regions with families lighting fires near the entrance of their homes.  A floating lantern is lit and sailed down a river to send the spirits off again.

                But how do witches celebrate Samhain, now?  Probably in several different ways.  I can share with you how my group does it.  We gather for a full witch’s circle and call the ancestors in to take part in the ritual.  We place a picture or a symbol of the deceased upon a special altar prepared specifically for that day and speak their names aloud.  We dance, we sing, we set aside time to meditate and commune, to ask questions and make peace.  It is a time of laughter and tears, of sweet memories and regrets.  We honor the tradition of divination by doing a working in circle and offering services afterwards and we always end the night with a huge feast for ourselves and in honor of our dead.

          Tradition is important, whether you decide to celebrate the commercial side of Halloween with bowls of candy and frightening, sexy, or fun costumes, or embrace the older traditions and honor your ancestors.  Some of us may do a little of both!  But whatever you do, make sure you don’t sit it out on the couch!

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 “History of Halloween”.  History.com.  A + E Networks, 2009.  21, Oct. 2016.  http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween

Mishima, Shizuko.  “Japan's Obon Festival: Everything You Need to Know”.  About Travel.  18, Aug. 2016.  29, Oct. 2016.   http://gojapan.about.com/cs/japanesefestivals/a/obonfestival.htm

Stanton, Andrea L.  Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa: An Encyclopedia.  SAGE, 5, Jan. 2012.

Wu, Annie.  “Hungry Ghost Festival”.  China Highlights.  8, Aug. 2016.  29, Oct. 2016.  http://www.chinahighlights.com/festivals/hungry-ghost-festival.htm

Wu, Annie.  “Qingming Festival”.  China Highlights.  8, Aug. 2016.  29, Oct. 2016.  https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/

Villalba, Angela.  “Day of the Dead & the Sugar Skull Tradition”.  Mexican Sugar Skull.  Reign Trading Co, n.d.  21, Oct. 2016.