In the pagan tradition, October 31st—Halloween— is not dedicated to shrieking children wandering the streets, annoying people with rabid demands for sugar.
Instead, witches and covens will be celebrating the Feast of the Dead, or Samhain, a Celtic ritual day celebrating at one and the same time the end of summer and the beginning of winter, a time of year when light fades into darkness.
Pagans believe that the veil between this world and the next is “thinnest” on this night, making All Hallow’s Eve the best time to perform acts of divination in the attempt to communicate with spirits that have crossed over.
The Celtic word Samhain actually means “Summer’s End”. It is one of the four great Sabbats of Celtic countries. Today it is called Halloween, which is derived from All Hallows Eve, a name given it by the Christian Church when people refused to stop using this day to honor ancestors. It is also called “The Witch’s New Year”.
Witchcraft, of course, has a long tradition of persecution in Christian society. In my opinion, it has been vastly misunderstood due to the fear and politicized prejudices of the Catholic Church, amongst other powerful groups, all of which have long sought to destroy the influence of ancient traditions with roots that lie so deep, they cannot be eradicated (and in fact, are making a strong resurgence, for many reasons). See The Witch’s Corner and the Chalice Centre For Celtic Spirituality to get a better sense of what pagans do these days.
My ancestors are at least partially responsible for bringing the rituals that became the modern celebration that is Halloween to the new world, hence my fascination with this time of year, no doubt:
At the time of mass transatlantic Irish and Scottish immigration that popularized Halloween in North America, Halloween in Ireland and Scotland had a strong tradition of guising and pranks.
This is how we, as a society, made the transition from pagan and Druid rituals, to children running through the streets with dime-store masks dangling from their necks (thanks to Wiki, the font of all wisdom):
In Scotland, the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white. Candle lanterns carved from turnips were part of the traditional festival. Large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces, placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. Guisers — men in disguise, were prevalent in 16th century in the Scottish countryside.
Children going door to door “guising” (or “Galoshin” on the south bank of the lower Clyde) in costumes and masks carrying turnip lanterns, offering entertainment of various sorts in return for food or coins, was traditional in 19th century, and continued well into the 20th century.
Another important part of this night is finding ways to commune with the dead, to summon ghosts and ethereal spirits who are willing to let you in on the secrets from the beyond. In my experience, those who are willing to share this information are usually your immediate ancestors, because they’re watching out for you and they have a vested interest in making sure you’re all right:
The most common uses of divination were to determine the identity of one’s future spouse, the location of one’s future home, and how many children a person might have. Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often employed in these rituals. Apples were peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of the future spouse’s name.
Nuts were roasted on the hearth and their movements interpreted; if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in a glass of water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from how many birds appeared or the direction the birds flew.
This movie has been out for quite some time, but I still think it’s one of the scariest, creepiest communicating-with-spirits movie ever made:
More next time on Celtic astrology, which has, no pun intended, considering it relies on trees for its underlying archetype and metaphor, ancient roots in the Druidic tradition.
Until then, Happy Halloween!