Today is the official date of our modern, abbreviated celebration of the ancient European festival of Samhain, pronounced sow-in — the name being one of those lexicographical oddities where “mh” (as spelled) in Irish is typically pronounced as a “w”.
We call it “Halloween,” which is short for “Hallows’ Even,” which is short for “All Hallows’ Evening.” All Hallows, in turn, is the Medieval Roman Catholic reflection of the more ancient Pagan Samhain, which reduced a week- or fortnight-long festival season to two liturgical feast-days in early November, known as All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Taken together, these two days were called All Hallows.
In most societies throughout history, the day always ends, and the new one begins, at sunset. Our current practice of starting the new day at midnight is actually only a century or two old: hence, the apparent traditional obsession with “evenings,” such as Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve or the Eve of Departure if you’re going to travel a long distance. In Medieval times, All Saints’ Day would quite naturally have begun at sunset on October 31 — All Hallows’ Evening.
In the modern world, Halloween falls on a single evening, beginning at sunset on October 31 (Gregorian Calendar), and ending — in a bizarre mixture of the old and the new — at the Witching Hour of midnight, when it gives way to All Saints’ Day. Halloween is mostly a sentimental, sometimes spooky, sometimes comical echo of the much larger, more practical, and more serious business of the season all over northern Europe — a final battening of the hatches and inventory of the storehouses before winter set in.
The Internet is full of all kinds of factual, fanciful, creepy, and/or perversely ignorant descriptions of the ancient Samhain festival, of which we know so little and speculate so much. Take your pick: however, one of the more respected sources is Ronald Hutton, a professor of history at the University of Bristol in England and someone who has actually studied the ancient Celts of the British Isles, and he has posted an article for the Guardian that talks a bit about the origins of modern Halloween.
I’m not going to try to further summarize any of that here. I’d like instead to make some more personal observations about our modern celebration of Samhain.
I celebrate Samhain as a modern druid. Our Grove, the Treehenge Druidic Circle in Fort Collins, CO, USA, like our parent organization, OBOD, is of a “revivalist” bent, meaning we’re quite happy to craft new traditions and practices as we go along and still call it “druidic.” The “real” druids don’t have much to say on the matter, since they vanished fifteen centuries ago. Some modern druids do take exception to calling what we do — or anything new, for that matter — druidic. For them, I have the following joke:
Q: How many druids does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Thirty-three — one to change the bulb, twelve to write epic poems about The Changing of the Bulb, and twenty to complain about how much better the old bulb was.
So that is all I will say about the “historical authenticity” of our practice as druids. Moving right along….
Our principal focus for Samhain is simply being aware of the change of seasons. This is more profound than it seems.
Most people reading this live in a heated box, somewhere, with Internet access and pizza delivery: I certainly do, as do all of our Grove members. The closest we come to “seasons” has more to do with whether barbecue grills or artificial evergreens are on sale at the big box stores, or whether to worry about the heating bill versus the air conditioning bill, or maybe needing to scrape ice off the windshield of the car. Beyond that, it’s a matter of which of numerous human-designed obstacles needs to be negotiated at the moment: Christmas shopping, or doing taxes, or gearing up for the annual family vacation, or buying school supplies, or deciding whether to bother with cranberry relish for Thanksgiving. These obstacles fall on certain traditional but arbitrary dates, as do birthdays, anniversaries, and national bank holidays of all sorts, but they could easily be moved six months around and it would make little difference. They have nothing at all to do with the actual turn of seasons.
Yet aware of them or not, the seasons affect us — our moods, our abilities, our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams, our fears — even when we’re packed up inside a heated box with Internet access and a plethora of distractions. So simply being aware of the seasons brings an enhanced self-awareness, which is close to the core of druidic practice.
Or, for that matter, any spiritual practice in any tradition. The goal of any spiritual practice is to replace the conventional with the authentic in our lives. The very definition of that requires that we be aware of what we’ve given uncritical lip-service to after inheriting it from our environment, and what we’ve truly incorporated into our being. That is pretty much the definition of self-awareness.
Because we live in heated boxes with pizza delivery, a lot of the pastoral and agricultural concerns of the ancients no longer apply to us. We’ve even shifted our “year end” from the last harvest to the astronomical solstice, just as we moved the “day end” from sunset to the astronomical midnight. Many of the great celebrations that might have attended the slaughtering of the herds and salting of the meat for the long winter, have likewise moved to the “holiday season” surrounding winter solstice, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.
So although most of us enjoy the Halloween costuming and partying and general Buffy the Vampire Slayer spookiness of Halloween, none of that plays any particular role in our modern druidic practice.
That said, our Grove has a rite — a ritual — that we celebrate together each year, to mark the change of season. It’s one of the eight seasonal rites we do, and one of the important ones, standing directly across the cycle of the seasons from another important one: Beltaine, the fertility rite. Where Beltaine celebrates the beginning of life, Samhain celebrates its ending.
This may sound strange to the modern US American ear, that we might celebrate death, for we live in a deeply thanatophobic (death-fearing) culture. The very idea of celebrating death brings to mind every B-grade movie ever made, of dark rituals in dark places, bent on the destruction of the world.
I can think of very little that could be further from the truth. There is a world of distance between celebrating and worshipping. Nor is celebrating death the same as seeking death, or even desiring death, for ourselves or for anyone else.
Perhaps I can illustrate with an example.
Many years ago, my father-in-law died. I don’t recall if there was a funeral — if there was, it was a stilted affair in a church or funeral home. What I remember clearly is scattering his ashes, high in the mountains, on a bright Fall day with hot sunlight and gentle but chill breezes. His children were consumed with grief at his passing, and wept as they let fall a bit of ash here, a bit there, reluctant to lose the final touch with his last earthly remains.
But there was a paradox in this, for he had not been a good father to his children, nor in his later years, a good husband to his wife.
His own father had believed him another man’s son, the product of an affair that his mother denied, and had been cold, critical, distant, and harsh. The son’s childhood had been hard, and miserable. He left home and studied music as a violinist, and was talented and very dedicated — he even met his wife over violins in an orchestra, for she was also a talented and dedicated violinist. They fell in love and married.
Then, like Beethoven, he’d been struck with progressive deafness. He’d turned to teaching music in the public schools, and as his hearing got worse, to teaching mathematics. Long before retirement age, his deafness grew so profound that he could no longer manage his classrooms, and was forced to retire on disability pay. He took to drinking, and spent the next twenty years trying to drink himself to death. He’d hurt his children as they grew up, emotionally and physically. My own son, his grandchild, called him “Grumpa.” He was as unhappy a man as I’d ever met, perpetually drunk, maudlin, bitter, and sometimes cruel.
As his son-in-law, I’d received my own handful of his ashes to scatter, and after some thought, I found a spot overlooking a beautiful sunlit valley. I took a deep breath, then threw all of the ashes as high into the air as I could, so that the wind could catch them. As they drifted away, I smiled, and said in my mind as a final prayer, “There, you miserable old coot! Go! You’re free! At last you’re free! And now that you have your ears back, spend the next year, or fifty, and listen to the late Beethoven quartets the way they were supposed to be heard!”
That is celebrating death.
It isn’t always possible. It wasn’t possible for his own children to celebrate his death as we scattered ashes. It was impossible for me to celebrate my daughter’s death for over two decades, and it is still painful after three. There is no fault or shame in this: it is part of death to create mourners, and they must mourn. But others can celebrate the passing, and even the deepest mourning eventually comes to an end, at our own death if not sooner.
So in our Samhain rite, we face the West — the place of the setting sun, and of endings — and we gaze through a window, or into a darkened mirror, and we call to the Ancestors, and we remember them: we celebrate their births, their lives, and their deaths.
Sometimes, they come to us.
I was touched in a Samhain rite, a few years ago, by the spirit of my fifth-grade teacher. In my six years of elementary school — seven, if you count Kindergarten — she was the only one who actually seemed to take any real, positive interest in me: so much so that she made a special trip to attend my college graduation, her eyes shining with congratulation. I had not thought about her much after the end of the fifth grade, and though I was surprised and deeply touched by her presence, we did not maintain contact after that.
Then suddenly, there she stood again in my mind and heart as I faced the darkened mirror, her flame of carrot-red hair and her big pale eyes and her kindly smile, surprising me as much as she had at my college graduation. She didn’t whisper to me any winning lottery numbers from beyond the grave, or deliver a dire warning about the end of days, or expound on the metaphysics of the afterlife. She just smiled and said, “I believe in you. I’ve always believed in you.”
Others in our Grove have had their own visitations during our rite. And if no one comes, that is also as it should be. We aren’t so arrogant as to think that we can command the spirits, or that they don’t have better things to do. But we welcome them if they come in peace and good will.
Nor does it much matter whether this is an exercise of memory, or of imagination, or some kind of metaphysical lifting of the curtain between life and death. It could be any of those things, or all of them, or something else entirely. Whatever its nature, it is an experience to be approached with respect and humility: in that light, we might as well treat it as real.
So we have adopted a practical Grove tradition of holding our Samhain rite open only to Grove members and guests, where all our other rites are open to the public — we do this, not because Samhain is secret, but because it is intimate.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow evening’s rite.
I wish for you all a blessed Samhain, and the gentle touch of the ancestors — or former teachers — who believe in you, and have always believed in you.