The Sacredness of Halloween
One of my Pagan friends has the same admonition for us each October. “Don’t try to contact me on Samhain, ” he informs, “I’ll be busy.” Of course, by “busy” he means that he’ll be deep in the midst of a self-imposed seclusion, fasting, meditating and performing solitary rites from sunup on October 31st to more or less sunup on November 1st. As a fellow Solitary Pagan, albeit of a different path, I can respect that. I also know members of an area coven that observe Samhain communally, going to the cemeteries to clean graves and make offerings or holding a silent supper before observing their Sabbat. I have to applaud them for their efforts as well. Even as an Egyptian Pagan, I consider October 31st a holy day, and I typically observe the Osiris Mysteries as close to that date as possible.
But I find one element of the sacred that still seems overlooked by both Solitaries and covens each October 31st. In our efforts as Pagans to mark the solemnity and sanctity of Samhain, we miss what probably made the day so hallowed and special for so many of us in the first place: dressing up, trick-or-treating, and celebrating all things spooky. In other words, we miss the importance of celebrating Halloween.
As a kid, I loved Halloween. Sure, Christmas was when I got presents and time off from school, but Halloween was a time when my creativity and imagination were allowed to soar. What am I going to be for Halloween? was a question I typically started asking myself around late August or early September, and by the time I was ten I was building my own costumes. Ironically, the Irish in my heritage was perhaps better celebrated through Halloween than it was through Saint Patrick’s Day. As a very young child, my mother told me the story of Jack and his Jack o’ Lantern while we carved pumpkins or colored paper decorations, and on occasion she would share ghost stories that her father had told her. The decorations we put up, combined with my own vivid imaginings of her stories, painted dark yet intriguing mental images of primeval forests stalked by fantastical creatures and lonely moonlit moors traversed by wandering souls.
Whether these images came from some collective inherited subconscious reaching back to our distant forbears in Ireland or from my own super-active brain, I will never know, but I still see them in my mind every October as I watch the sun go down and the full moon rise. Another source of inspiration are the handful of decorations and other items I inherited directly from family members: my uncle’s black light, my mother’s pack of Gypsy Witch Tarot Cards (which by this point must be at least forty years old) , my paternal grandmother’s tabletop decoration of a black cat on a tombstone (I’ve had offers from friends to buy it, but it’s not for sale) , and most especially the cassette dub my late grandfather made for me from his old record of Halloween sound effects, complete with a playlist in his own handwriting. While he was alive, my maternal grandfather instilled in me a love of technical toys, especially recording and sound equipment, which carried over into my Halloween decorations–especially the screaming doormats I became notorious for in college!
From the general Pagan perspective Samhain, of course, is a time of transition when the Corn King dies and enters the Underworld (with variations depending on tradition) . It is a time to honor the dead, and an opportunity for divination because the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. The focus is on death, aging, and mortality, much the antithesis of childhood revelry. But when I think back to those Irish forbears–and probably our Welsh ancestors as well–observing the onset of winter, huddled around a bonfire as darkness closed around them and cries of wild animals echoed through the distant hills, I think of grandparents telling their grandchildren those same stories I heard about Jack with his lantern, the Will o’ the Wisp, the Banshee, and probably more I would never hear.
I think of children wrapping themselves tighter in Grandpa’s cloak, staring with wide eyes of wonder at the curtains of shadows beyond the fire, experiencing for the first time that thrill of a good ghost story, and the eternal question, Oh, that’s not real–is it?. Imagination is a sacred gift from the Gods Themselves, the more so when it is handed down from one generation to the next. The Irish and Anglo-Saxons that travelled from their native lands to North America passed down those stories, those characters, and that love of a good fright, regardless of whether they called it Samhain or Halloween, and that lively spirit lives on in our modern holiday.
Indeed, today Halloween is considered a major “kid” holiday, driving a multi-million-dollar industry fed every year by the young and young at heart. And as we all know, Halloween has no shortage of detractors among the evangelical Christian community who denounce it as a “devil’s holiday”–forgetting, of course, that it has long been celebrated as a Catholic holiday, whence it earned the name All Hallow’s Eve. The Mexican communities who observe Dia De Los Muertes two days later are no less devout in their Catholicism. But as we Pagans strive to reclaim the Samhain heritage of October 31st, establishing its legitimacy as a sacred occasion and not a night of “devil worship”, lost in the debate and dogma is the holiday’s golden opportunity to enhance the bond between generations, something just as spiritual and important as its ritual aspect.
A coven member once told me that children are not allowed at their Samhain rituals, owing to the dark and serious tone required to participate. How, then, are the next generation of Wiccans and Pagans going to identify with Samhain, especially if their Pagan parents are spending all their time observing the Sabbat for themselves? How are kids today to understand trick-or-treating, costumes and other traditions surrounding Halloween–and its Celtic prototype? Are we going to fill their heads with ideas of October 31st as Samhain, the misunderstood holy day they’re expected to defend against ignorant schoolmates but wait until they’re older to participate in; or as Halloween and Samhain, a time of year that has something for everyone to enjoy?
For my own part, I’m already planning how I will decorate for this year’s trick-or-treaters; I had better, considering I’ve gained a neighborhood reputation for having the best candy! I take joy in observing Halloween with the neighborhood kids, regardless of their religious affiliation–besides, if their parents opposed Halloween, chances are they wouldn’t be coming to my door (unless they snuck out to do so, in which case who am I to discourage defiance…?) . By doing so, I contribute a tiny part of my own heritage, passed down through the ages, to the next generation so that it won’t one day die with me.
I will have plenty of time to observe the Osiris Mysteries in private after the trick-or-treaters have all gone to bed. But whenever the time comes that I have others observing the Osiris feast with me, I will make sure that they know ahead of time to pitch in for the trick-or-treating first. A child’s imagination is just as sacred as any service, and it should be celebrated accordingly.