This is the first of my High Holy Day essays for the DP, and addresses the November Holiday.
Samhain is one of the cross-quarter “fire” festivals in the Celtic hearth culture and is often celebrated as the beginning of the Neopagan new year. (In a society where the next day starts at sunset, the next year starts at “sundown” in the fall.)
This is the time of year when the veils between this world and the Otherworld are thinnest. I’ve heard it said that at Beltaine we go to the Otherworld, and at Samhain the Otherworld comes here to us. It’s a time of remembering the dead of the last year, as well as all of the Ancestors and Mighty Dead, and many celebrations focus on the thinning of the veils and the presence of the dead among us. Dead feasts are common, where the evening’s supper is set with an extra plate for the dead, or where food is left on the table over night, and a fire left burning in the hearth, so the departed dead can enjoy the comforts of life for one last celebration.
For those in the Celtic hearth, the meeting of the Daghda and the Morrigan is sometimes brought to mind, the interaction between life and sex and death, and the role of the Gods in the fates of man and battles. Also at this time, Donn, the God of the Underworld and the Land of the Dead is honored, as is the Cailleach Bheur, the Grandmother Hag and Queen of Winter, who comes with the onset of the cold and may represent the Ancients. Tales sometimes mention the first frost as specifically hers, and though I live in a place where we rarely get any frost at all (most years it doesn’t ever freeze here), I find that on cool fall mornings, I can feel her energy and the energy of the waning world.
Of course, this is also the time of the final harvest. The last of the ‘harvest’ festivals in the Neopagan calendar, Samhain is the hunting harvest, when livestock were slaughtered in preparation for winter, since it’s now cold enough for the meat to be preserved or frozen without spoiling. All the food for winter is gathered in, and the year draws to a close. While it is a time of preparation, it’s also a time of plenty, and a good time to share our bounty with the Ancestors and our beloved dead, now when there is a store of food to share.
I’ve always loved fall as a liminal season. It feels like a time out of time, between summer and winter and between life and death. There is, of course, death in the fall, but also the promise of rebirth (both with pregnant animals and with crops that must freeze in the ground to germinate in the spring). I find that I’m drawn to store up for winter, even in the age of 24-hour Mega Mart stores and living in a place that doesn’t have much of a “fall” (or a “winter” really). It’s as though, deep in my bones, I know winter is coming and I should be prepared. I also love that it’s finally cool enough to cook warm, comforting, sustaining food.
I love the secular celebration of Halloween too, but I separate that from what is sacred about this time of year. There is a kernel of truth in gearing up for one last hurrah before winter, and playing dress up in costumes is just plain fun. And I can eat candy without feeling the least bit bad about it. Plus the spooks and witches and ghosts and jack-o-lanterns are just a time of fun, good friends, and good memories for me. I often make a really adorable batch of vampire-bitten cupcakes. But the secular Halloween has little to do with the liminal, sacred Samhain, and I enjoy that I get to celebrate both.