Let The Hallows Dance Begin
The most popular festival in ancient times as well as in modern society is Samhain, the Celtic New year, also known as Halloween. It is a time of celebration, superstition, and a time to honor, remember and pay tribute to our ancestors.
The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because it was on Samhain that the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld. So bonfires were lit in their honor, to aid them on their journey and to keep them away from the living because on that day more than any other, all manner of beings were thought to be out and about: ghosts, fairies, and demons--all part of the dark and dreaded.
The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now comprised of Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer, the harvest, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. It was also a time of year that was often associated with human death. The Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became almost non-existent.
In addition to the spirits possibly causing trouble and damaging crops, the Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly beings made it easier for the Druids, the Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
Since the Celts were pastoral people, it was a time when cattle and sheep had to be moved to closer pastures and all livestock had to be secured for the winter months. Crops needed to be harvested and stored and they looked upon that time as both an ending and a beginning in the eternal cycle of life.
Samhain became the Halloween that most people are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. In the early centuries of the first millennium A.D., before missionaries such as St. Patrick and St. Columncille were converting the Pagans to Christianity, the Celts practiced an elaborate religion through their priestly caste, the Druids, who were priests, poets, scientists and scholars all wrapped up in one. Interestingly enough, in their role as religious leaders, ritual specialists, and bearers of learning, the Druids were not unlike the very missionaries and monks who were to Christianize their people and brand them evil devil worshippers.
The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was too strong, and perhaps too basic to the human psyche, to be satisfied with the new, more abstract Catholic feast honoring saints.
In the 9th century, recognizing that something would be needed to incorporate the original energy of Samhain with their new religion, the church tried again to supplant it with a Christian feast day. This time it established November 2nd as All Souls Day -a day when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead. But the practice of retaining traditional customs while attempting to redefine them had a somewhat sustaining effect: the traditional beliefs and customs lived on, in new guises.
During the day on October 31st, the fires within the home were extinguished. Often families would engage in a good "fall" cleaning to clear out the old and make way for the new, starting the winter months with fresh and clean household items.
At sunset on October 31, clans or local villages begin the formal ceremonies of Samhain by lighting a giant bonfire. The people would gather around the fire to burn crops as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. It was a method of giving the Gods and Goddesses their share of the previous years’ herd or crops. In addition, these sacred fires were a big part of the cleansing of the old year and a method to prepare for the coming new year.
During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of Wheel of Life.
Not all souls were honored and respected. Some were also feared because it was believed that they would return to the physical world and destroy crops, hide livestock or 'haunt' the living who may have done them wrong. The second reason for these traditional costumes was to hide from these malevolent spirits to escape their trickery.
When the celebration was over, the hearth fires that had been extinguished earlier that evening were re-lit from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
In addition to celebrations and dance, it was believed that this thin veil between the physical world and the Otherworld provided extra energy for communications between the living and the dead. With these communications, Druid Priests, and Celtic Shamans would attempt to tell the fortunes of people through a variety of methods.
Dressing up for Halloween in modern times gets it roots from dressing up around the sacred bonfire during the original Celtic festival. Some suggest, this practice originates from England, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world on Halloween. People thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes, so to avoid being recognized people would wear masks after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. In addition, they would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter or cause harm to their homes. A tradition taken from the ancient Celtic pagans. They were also worn tohonor the dead who were allowed to rise from the Otherworld. The Celts believed that souls were set free from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain. Those that had been trapped in the bodies of animals were released by the Lord of the Dead and sent to their new incarnations. The wearing of these costumes signified the release of these souls into the physical world.
Today Pagans see Samhain as a time to honor the dead, not as the dead, but as the living spirits of loved ones and as guardians who hold the wisdom of mankind. It is a celebration of the afterlife where we do not die but rest and continue to learn and prepare for our next incarnation. It’s a time to revere our ancestors because if it weren’t for them, there would be no us. On this night, we remember.
The colors of this Sabbat are black and orange. Black to represent the time of darkness after the death of the God (who is represented by fire and the sun) during an earlier Sabbat known as Lughnasadh, and the waning of light during the day. Orange represents the awaiting of the dawn during Yule (Dec. 21st to Jan. 1st) when the God is reborn.
There is some debate about the origination of Jack-o-lanterns. One line suggests this custom originated from the lighting of candles for the dead to follow as they walked the earth. These candles were placed in hallowed out gourds and put on the ground to light the way. Others suggest the practice originates from a Christianized Irish myth about a man nicknamed "Stingy Jack."
According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form.
Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
Samhain became the Halloween are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. In the early centuries of the first millennium A.D., before missionaries such as St. Patrick and St. Columncille were converting the Pagans to Christianity, the Celts practiced an elaborate religion through their priestly caste, the Druids, who were priests, poets, scientists and scholars all wrapped up in one. Interestingly enough, in their role as religious leaders, ritual specialists, and bearers of learning, the Druids were not unlike the very missionaries and monks who were to Christianize their people and brand them evil devil worshippers.
Trick-or-treating is a modern tradition that probably finds its roots in the early All Souls' Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for the family's dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as "going a-souling" was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money.
Halloween has always been a holiday filled with mystery, magic and superstition. Today's Halloween ghosts are often depicted as more fearsome and malevolent, and our customs and superstitions are scarier too. We avoid crossing paths with black cats, afraid that they might bring us bad luck. This idea has its roots in the Middle Ages, when many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into cats. We try not to walk under ladders for the same reason. This superstition may have come from the ancient Egyptians, who believed that triangles were sacred; it also may have something to do with the fact that walking under a leaning ladder tends to be fairly unsafe. And around Halloween, especially, we try to avoid breaking mirrors, stepping on cracks in the road or spilling salt.
But what about the Halloween traditions and beliefs that today's trick-or-treaters have forgotten all about? Many of these obsolete rituals focused on the future instead of the past and the living instead of the dead. In particular, many had to do with helping young women identify their future husbands and reassuring them that they would someday, with luck, by be married by the next Halloween. In 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it. In Scotland, fortune-tellers recommended that an eligible young woman name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding, the story went, represented the girl's future husband. (In some versions of this legend, confusingly, the opposite was true. The nut that burned away symbolized a love that would not last. Another tale had it that if a young woman ate a sugary concoction made out of walnuts, hazelnuts and nutmeg before bed on Halloween night she would dream about her future husband. Young women tossed apple-peels over their shoulders, hoping that the peels would fall on the floor in the shape of their future husbands' initials; tried to learn about their futures by peering at egg yolks floating in a bowl of water; and stood in front of mirrors in darkened rooms, holding candles and looking over their shoulders for their husbands' faces. Other rituals were more competitive. At some Halloween parties, the first guest to find a burr on a chestnut-hunt would be the first to marry; at others, the first successful apple-bobber would be the first down the aisle. Of course, whether asking for romantic advice or trying to avoid seven years of bad luck, each one of these Halloween superstitions relies on the good will of the very same "spirits" whose presence the early Celts felt so keenly.
Inn modern times, hosting a dumb supper in the honor of the spirits is fairly common. In this case, the word "dumb" refers to being silent. The origins of this tradition have been fairly well debated -- some claim it goes back to ancient cultures, others believe it's a relatively new idea. Regardless, it's one that's observed by many people around the world.
When holding a Dumb Supper, there are a few simple guidelines to follow. First of all, make your dining area sacred, either by casting a circle, smudging, or some other method. Turn off phones and televisions, eliminating outside distractions.
Secondly, remember that this is a solemn and silent occasion. Ask each adult guest to bring a note to the dinner. The note's contents will be kept private, and should contain what they wish to say to their deceased friends or relatives.
Set a place at the table for each guest and reserve the head of the table for the Spirits. Use a tea light candle at the Spirit setting to represent each of the deceased. Shroud the Spirit chair in black or white cloth.
No one may speak from the time they enter the dining room. As each guest enters the room, they should take a moment to stop at the Spirit chair and offer a silent prayer to the dead. Once everyone is seated, join hands and take a moment to silently bless the meal. The host or hostess, who should be seated directly across from the Spirit chair, and the meal is served to guests in order of age, from the oldest to youngest. No one should eat until all guests, including Spirit, are served. When everyone has finished eating, each guest should get out the note to the dead that they brought. Go to the head of the table where Spirit sits, and find the candle for your deceased loved one. Focus on the note, and then burn it in the candle's flame (you may wish to have a plate or small cauldron on hand to catch burning bits of paper) and then return to their seat. When everyone has had their turn, join hands once again and offer a silent prayer to the dead.
Everyone leaves the room in silence. Stop at the Spirit chair on your way out the door, and say goodbye one more time. Many offer a prayer such as this:
This is the night when the gateway between our world and the spirit world is thinnest. Tonight is a night to call out those who came before. Tonight I honor my ancestors. Spirits of my fathers and mothers, I call to you, and welcome you to join me for this night. You watch over me always, protecting and guiding me, and tonight I thank you. Your blood runs in my veins, your spirit is in my heart, your memories are in my soul. [If you wish, you may want to recite your genealogy here. This can include both your blood family, and your spiritual one.] With the gift of remembrance. I remember all of you. You are dead but never forgotten, and you live on within me, and within those who are yet to come. So mote it be.
On this holiest of nights, we call upon those ancestors who came before us. After all, if not for them, we wouldn't be here. We offer them gratitude for their ability to survive, their strength, their spirit. Many chant for their return.
Dealing with the past in regards to this Sabbat is very important, and at Samhain, witches cast spells to keep anything negative from the past – like evil, harm, corruption, or greed out of the future. We also cast spells to contact our deceased forebears and retrieve ancient knowledge, thus preserving the great Web that stretches through many generations of human families. But we also look to the future as well.
Some do divinations for the next year using tarot, a crystal ball, flame, pendulum, magick mirror, black bowl, runes, Ouija boards, or a black cauldron filled with black ink or water. Others Make resolutions for the upcoming year by writing them on a small piece of parchment, and burning them in a candle flame, preferably a black votive candle within a cauldron on the altar. It’s also a good time to go out into nature and find a magick wand of oak, holly, ash, rowan, birch, hazel, elm, hawthorn or willow. And speaking of trees, long ago at Samhain, witches once gave one another acorns as gifts. During the Burning Times, giving someone an acorn was a secret means of telling that person you were a witch. Acorns are fruits of the oak, one of the most sacred trees to the ancient Celts. They are symbols of protection, fertility, growth, values, friendship and love.
May the blessings and renewal of Samhain, our New Year, be upon you. Let it begin with each step you take. Let it begin with each change you make. Let it begin with each chain you break, and let it begin every day that you wake.
Have a Blessed Samhain, a Happy Halloween and Blessed Be.