Throughout human history, the end of summer and the beginning of winter has been a sacred time associated with death and preparation for rebirth. It is a time of contemplation, of looking inward, and of letting go of what no longer serves us. It is the darkest time of year — but also the quietest, and the best for healing and rest. Darkness and death are natural parts of who we are, and should not be feared.
These themes can be seen in the Greek myth of Persephone and her yearly descent into the Underworld. They can be seen in the Sumerian myth of Inanna, the Egyptian myth of Osiris, and even the story of Jesus Christ — the concept of a god who dies and rises again is older than recorded history, and has appeared in many different cultures.
In many pagan groups, these themes are celebrated each fall with the festival of Samhain. Samhain is the last of the ancient Irish harvest festivals (though it was also celebrated by other Celtic groups under different names), and is traditionally celebrated over a three day period at the beginning of November, with celebrations beginning at sunset on the first night.
For the ancient Irish, Samhain was the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Samhain was celebrated with great feasts and bonfires, which represent the light that survives in the dark of winter. It is said to be the time when our world is closest to the world of the spirits, allowing the dead to return and visit their living family. Samhain was a time to give thanks for the harvest, to celebrate the lives and legacies of the dead, and to pray for blessings in the year to come. Many of our modern Halloween traditions, such as trick-or-treating (originally called “guising”) and telling ghost stories, come from Samhain.
Samhain is also one of eight sabbats, or major seasonal holidays, recognized in the modern neopagan religion of Wicca. Wiccan Samhain celebrations are based on ancient Irish traditions, but have a much greater focus on sacrifice, death, and rebirth as embodied by the legend of the dying and rising god. Wiccans may mark the death of the God on Samhain, or may choose to focus on figures like Persephone and Osiris in their celebrations. Many choose to honor their ancestors at this time, and may perform a special ritual for those who have passed on.
Christianity has its own set of holy days dealing with these themes. All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1st, is a day of celebration for those souls who have attained heaven. This holy day celebrates not just those saints who are known, but those whose names have been lost to time. All Saints’ Day is followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, which honors the dead who have not yet reached heaven. These holy days are celebrated by the Catholic Church as well as some Protestant denominations such as the Anglican and Lutheran Churches. For the Christians who celebrate these days, they are about remembering the dead and celebrating their example.
Some historians theorize that All Saints’ Day (and later All Souls’ Day) was created as a Christian alternative to to Lemuria, a Roman festival during which malevolent spirits were exorcised or appeased. If this is true, it explains why All Saints’ Day (which should be a very joyous holiday) came to be associated with ghosts and ghouls.
When Catholicism spread to the British Isles, the Church moved the date of All Saints’ Day from May (the date of Lemuria) to the first of November (the date of Samhain). Many of the ancient Samhain traditions were adopted by Celtic Christians celebrating All Saints’ Day. This is how trick-or-treating, Jack-o-Lanterns, and bonfires came to be associated with All Saints’ Day.
All Saints’ Day is sometimes referred to as “The Feast of All Hallows” or “Hallowmas.” The night before All Saints’ Day would then be “All Hallows’ Eve” — this is where the modern word “Halloween” comes from.
Modern Halloween celebrations combine elements of Samhain, All Saints’ Day, and even Lemuria. However, much of the spiritual nature of the holiday has been lost in the last century as it became increasingly commercialized.
- Where the Hawthorn Grows by Morgan Daimler
- Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham
- Wicca For Beginners by Thea Sabin
- “All Saints’ Day” and “All Souls’ Day” on Catholic Online (catholic.org)
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