You can blame Kirk Cameron for this one. I saw an article about the actor’s claims that Pagans stole Halloween from the Christians. The title alone is a good indication of what you will find inside. Trust me, it went downhill from there. So today I offer a history lesson.
The Pagan year is divided into two halves, the light and the dark. Samhain is the official switch over from the light half to the dark half, while Beltane (May Day) is on the opposite end. Many Pagans see this as a sort of New Year. The word Samhain literally means ‘Summer’s End’. In Ireland it’s pronounced Sow-in, Wales Sow-een, and Scottland Sav-en.
Before the Gregorian calendar the date for Samhain was calculated as so many days after the Blood moon, the first full moon in October (Blood moon does not refer to a lunar eclipse). However now, it’s just easier to pick a nearby date, and has been October 31st for so long no one is quite sure when it started that way.
The most significant part of this celebration is inclusion of ancestors and loved ones passed. It is said that on Samhain and Beltane the veils between the living and the dead are thinnest. To a Pagan that means it is more likely to have ghosts wandering around and communicating with you. This is not a scary thing. It’s a blessed thing. Think of it, that grandparent you miss dearly, or an ancestor from far back in your line, coming to you tell you they love you and are proud of you, and to offer advice. Millions of people worldwide currently seek this service out through mediums. In the Pagan world this is the time most likely for that to happen and is a time we honor them. A Samhain ritual focuses on honoring the dead and receiving their messages, as well as all the fun stuff of food, games, and community. In some traditions this is also considered the launch of the Wild Hunt which rides the entire dark half of the year. This is when the male form of deity rides with his 'huntsmen' in search of the most evil among us to provide swift justice. (There is a link between this and Santa Clause, but that's another post.)
Some parts of the world this has evolved into something very similar. In Hispanic countries it is common to celebrate The Day of the Dead on November 1st. This community, multi-faith, celebration involves large block parties and parades. Names of loved ones gone are written and spoken in honor. The loved ones’ favorite foods are prepared. They believe that their ghosts will walk among them on that eve and be able to eat those foods and enjoy them. Skeletons that are already a huge part of that culture become prolific. This particular celebration has melded Samhain with All Saint’s Day, a Christian holy day.
This is where the biggest confusion comes in. Very early in Church’s history there was a holy day established for the remembrance of the dead. The first record of All Saint’s Day being observed in the Western Church is around 608 A.D. on May 13th. It was moved in 741 to Nov. 1st, the official word being to link it with the consecration of a new basilica, which may or may not be true. I choose to take it at face value and believe the public made their own inferences of the date. The historic exploits of the Christian Church to win over ‘Godless Pagans’ is well known. There are several innocuous and malignant examples of this.
The night before All Saint’s Day was known as All Hallows Eve, hallowed meaning sacred. It shortened in every day speech to Hallow’ een, or Halloween. With the Pagan rites involving ghosts, the Church remembering the dead, and the constant pull from both sides in the early church years, one says sacred the other says evil, it is a very short jump to see how it all got jumbled. It is also why modern Pagans make a general rule about using the word Samhain over Halloween.
The advent of costumes and Trick-or-Treating is fairly recent the first actual record being in the 1930’s. There are some loose connections to old Samhain traditions though. In England Soul Cakes were made as offerings for wandering souls. People would ‘A Soulin’ for the cakes, going door to door to collect them. There was also the practice of Mumming. As lore of Halloween being a time of all manner of dark and evil things became prevalent and the true nature of the day relegated to old wise tales, it was still common to put out offerings to appease the dark spirits. Adults would dress up as these creatures and attempt to fool their friends by acting out trickery in exchange for the offering.
Some also link Guy Fawkes day. This would actually be the basis of Anonymous and the V for Vendetta movie. Essentially, on Nov. 5th., a man in the famous Anonymous mask bombed parliament and started a revolution. Guy Fawkes day is a day of mischief and pranks, and of course it’s costumed to keep you from getting caught. I can see the basis for Hell Night, the night when older teens and young adults are knowing for playing sometimes dangerous pranks, in this.
Many modern Pagans don’t like Trick-or-Treating, or costume parties. They feel it takes away from the true spirit of the season and feeds into the myths of evil witches. Personally I don’t have a problem with it. In every celebration there is a place for children. Games, special clothes, general merriment. As long as we are there to teach them the true meanings, I say let them play and enjoy.
Susan is a plural writer and artist by day, a child and pet wrangler by night, and occasional crazy person on the weekends.