How and Why a Family of Wiccans Celebrates Samhain
As the sun begins to set on October 31st, we gather with friends and relatives to begin celebrating the Great Sabbat of Samhain.
Wiccans don't actually celebrate Halloween. That's an American secular holiday all about candy, costumes and ghost stories. But the festive day it does have some roots in the ancient Northern European festivals, commonly called Samhain (SOW-een), which means "Summer's End." It was a
harvest festival; a time to put the crops to rest and finish preparing for the long and dangerous winter ahead.
It's no wonder our superstitious ancestors feared this time of year, thinking the spirits of the dead walked the Earth, that the veil between the worlds was thin, imagined devils and demons laying in wait for their souls, and that one could look into your future to see one's fate. It was a scary time. The days were growing shorter, the night's longer. The late Autumn winds began to blow the countryside speedily toward Winter, where the first of many snowfalls lie in wait to imprison the ground in ice. People were ready to retreat into their humble, rustic abodes, where they would live out the dark days by candlelight, isolated, trying to get the chill out of their bones and praying their family would make it until Spring thaw. In the Winter, people died. Anything going wrong could be catastrophic for a family- running out of food or fire wood, getting ill, a house catching fire from a misplaced coal. When a new baby was born in the winter, instead of congratulations, a common sentiment was, "don't get too attached to it yet." People didn't even bother naming new babies until the Spring. It's hardly a stretch of the imagination to realize why people's imaginations ran away with them considering the tribulations ahead.
Our home has for days been bustling with activity. For a Grand Sabbat, the house simply must be spic and span, so we've spent the last couple of weeks doing our deep Fall cleaning. Lists of chores have been passed around and ticked off as they were completed. Decorations have been dragged
from the attic and dusted off, and spread around the house like confetti- silk Autumn leaves are draped everywhere, scarecrows are peeking from corners and ghosties hanging from the ceiling, dried herbal wreaths deck the walls and potted marigolds make table centerpieces. We've spent a few days carving jack-o-lanterns featuring images of the harvest reaper, sculls, pentagrams, and simple smiling faces, and they glow warmly in the corners of the room.
The focal point of the room is a large altar draped in black cloth, topped with candles, a cauldron, a wand, a silver goblet, baskets of Autumn fruits and nuts. Against it rests a straw broom. Burning incense in a brass dish perfumes the house with an apple-cinnamon scent, mingling with the odors of a harvest feast that seeps from the kitchen. Hanging above the altar, a cardboard painted tree with branches reaching to the ceiling. On it's branches are pinned orange and gold paper leaves, each with the names of a deceased person who has touched our lives- relatives we may or may not have gotten the chance to know, musicians and writers and heroes who have had an impact on us, friends whose time had come too soon, and even beloved pets.
Folk music plays, a somber tune chanting the praises of the Goddess. The kids are in their costumes, as are a few adults. We form a semi-circle around the altar.Modern Wiccans no longer face the same fears and dangers that our ancestors did. When winter comes, with our electrically heated homes, local mega-marts and modern medicine, we don't fear we won't live through it.
But we still hold reverent this time of year for what it symbolizes. At a time of year when even nature itself seems to be dying, we honor the dead and celebrate death as a part of the life cycle- after all, we celebrate birth, youth, fertility, maturity and every other part of the life cycle; why not death? We look to the myths of the sacrificial Gods who give their lives- Mithra, The Green Man, Jesus, Odin- who give their lives and go to the land of the dead in order to bring life back to the world. We honor the Goddess- the feminine aspect of the Divine- in the symbolic form of the Crone, the wise old woman. She is associated with the dark- no, not evil; the absence of light, the end of the day when the stars come out, likewise the end of life when we walk over the threshold of our twilight years. We celebrate the harvest, nature's bounty, the beauty of the world even as it lays to rest, with the knowledge that it will awaken again for us in a few months.
Children sprinkle the room with salt (earth) and water, and carry around a red candle (fire) and vessel of incense (air), as we ask for the blessings of the sacred elements. Music plays:
Dark Mother, take us in
Let us be reborn... (lyrics by Patricia Witt)
A flickering orange pillar candle decorated with glittery sun and star symbols rises from a small cauldron at the center of the altar. From it, we light white candles to guide the recently departed to the Summerlands- the place souls go when they die to rest, reflect and prepare for
rebirth. We call out the names of those we've loved and bid welcoming to the spirits of our ancestors who loved us and wish us well to celebrate our Sabbat with us.We offer a prayer to the Sun God:
On this night of Samhain, we mark your passing,
O Sun King, through the sunset into the Land of the Young.
We also mark the passing of all who have gone before, and all who will go after
O Gracious Goddess, Eternal Mother, You who gives birth to the fallen,
teach us to know that in the time of greatest darkness,
there is greatest light
Children blow out the Sun Candle to symbolize the death of the Sun God. We've used it all year during our eight Sabbats, the first marking the rebirth of the Sun Lord, and throughout the seasons of His life. Now, the remaining wax will be buried and a new Sun Candle made for His rebirth
at the Winter Solstice. There are hugs and kisses and season's greetings, and the children are taken out for their trick-or-treating rounds. Even though it has nothing to do with our holiday, we allow them some time to enjoy the secular celebration with friends and neighbors. Besides, they always score me enough peanut butter cups to last until Valentine's day. While some adults are out bringing the children around, some (often the domestically inclined ladies of the family) stay behind and set the table for the feast. The table is decorated with our best dishes and silverware, with little pumkins, gourds, Fall flowers and candles adorning it. A giant cauldron full of a beef and pork stew is set in the center with a silver ladle. Fresh baked rolls, corn on the cob, yams, pumpkin, apple pie, mulled wine, apple cider and cranberry juice follows.The house oddly begins to feel crowded, as though our unseen loved ones have been arriving and are mulling about the place, as caught up in the season as we are. Sometimes you catch a whiff of an old perfume you haven't smelled in years, or feel a breath on the back of your neck, or a pressure on your shoulder, like that of a caring hand. Is it our imaginations? Could be- but it doesn't matter. It helps me feel like those who I've been missing are close to me once again. The trick-or-treaters return, hungry from their travels. Soon, a lone voice begins chanting:
Our hands will work for peace and justice
Our hands will work to heal the land
Gather 'round the harvest table
Let us feast and bless the land (Harvest Chant, lyrics by Theresa Dutton)...
It draws everyone from the corners of the house to a festive romp around the dinner table with all joining in the singing. A woman, usually the lady of the house- namely, me- takes up the juice and asks for blessings of the Goddess. She pours out a libation into a cup, takes a sip and passes it around the table for everyone else to have a sip. The cup is passed with the wish, "may you never thirst."
Someone else, usually the man of the house- namely, my husband- takes up the bread and asks for blessings of the God. He puts a piece on a dish, takes a piece to bite, and passes it around for everyone else. After a bite, each person passes it to the next with the wish, "may you never thirst."
We pile that plate with a heaping portion of all the foods on the table. The children include a few pieces of candy- not just the hard suckers, the good stuff- and carry the cup, plate and other baskets of food to the altar. We make the offering in the names of Goddess and God, in honor of those who have gone before, with thanks for the blessings of the earth, and set it on the altar. In the morning, it will be set out for the wild life to take it. Then we sit at the table and serve ourselves.
As we feast, and even later when we are stuffed and nursing our after-dinner coffee, we speak of the dead. We remember those who have gone before us- sometimes with laugher, sometimes with tears, but more often with a combination of both. We speak their names and tell their stories, passing on their memories to new generations so they can live on.We sing songs, dance, comfort each other, or tell old seasonal folk tales and myths to the children.
When they are finally asleep- not as late as you would think, after all that excitement- and guests who remain shut the overhead lights and settle down by the glow of candles and jack-o-lanterns to meditate, perform divination, or work magic. Secrets are revealed, deep feelings are pondered and courses of action are speculated. Often, revelations are had.
In the wee hours before dawn, once the living guests depart (though I often continue to feel the presence of a soul or two), and everyone in the household has gone to bed, I sit in the darkness. I gaze at the dying candles on the altar, and reflect on my life. Reflection is another
important association to this time of year. At harvest, our pastoral ancestors saw what the seeds they had sown had brought, and gathered the fruits of their labors. Likewise, at this harvest festival, I think on the "seeds" I have planted in my life. I think about all the things that have come to fruition, and all the blessings that abound. I let go of that which is no longer bearing fruit, and consider what I need to bring in for the future.
Not all Wiccans celebrate exactly as my family does; like Christmas or Passover, every denomination has their own set of rites and rituals, and every family it's own unique traditions. You may disagree with my beliefs, or the mythologies and traditions I draw on, but try to see past the pomp and circumstance, past the myth and symbolism (for my family does not believe these things literally), to the meaning at the heart of my celebration: to honor and remember those who have touched my life in some way, be thankful to the Creator for life and celebrate life's blessings, and to think back on my words and deeds, where they have brought me and consider where I am going. Without the fears the ancestors had to worry about, we have tried to re-create the important, life-affirming message of this time of year to connect with them and learn from them, lest we forget their wisdom with our lives so removed from what nature had intended (Goddess forbid!).
For some, Halloween -- with roots going back to ancient harvest rituals -- runs deeper than bobbing for apples and carving pumpkins.For those practicing the Wicca religion, Halloween is one of eight holy days throughout the year and is known as Samhain.
"It's the third in a triad of harvest festivals. Preparing for winter and the dark months ahead," said Adam Holtzinger, owner of the Sacred Earth store in downtown Antioch. It is also a time of remembering ancestors and lighting a candle for them, he said.Holtzinger has been practicing Wicca most of his life. Technically, males following Wiccan practices are known as Wicca; females are known as Wicce. Holtzinger likes to keep it more simple.
"I generally tell people that I'm a witch," he said.Wicca is based on the changes of seasons and how they affect your life, Holtzinger said. The holidays are the two solstices and equinoxes and the four cross-quarter days.
Wiccans generally pray to deities similar to more mainstream religions. The male and female divinities are known as Lady and Lord or Great Mother and Great Father, he said.
"We worship higher parties like any other benevolent faith," Holtzinger said.Some of the stereotypical depictions of witches are rooted in truth, others, obviously, are not.
"A lot of us are not crazy about the green-faced, wart-nosed hags that pass for witches. I know a lot of witches and never saw one with green skin," he said. "But sometimes the holiday opens the doors for discussion."Wiccans do use ceremonial brooms as a tool of purification for rituals, and wands capped with crystals on the ends are used to divert and direct energy, he said. Black mirrors made from volcanic glass are used as a focal point for gazing and meditation and are symbolically a connection with the other world.
"This time of year the veil between worlds is said to be very thin," he said.The pentagon is a powerful symbol of Wicca, representing what Holtzinger said are the five elements -- spirit, earth, air, fire and water.
The Silent Supper-Celebration of Samhain
By key and cauldron, I call
out in the darkness
of the crossroads--
Hecate, hear my prayer;
Part thy veil that I might
learn the Mysteries.
Of all the Craft holidays, Samhain speaks to us of strong emotions-- death, resurrection-- of deep, cloaked energies and shining hope for the future. It is our New Year celebration; our will to face the specter of death without tremor; and our desire to know those things that others fear to see.
This, our Samhain.
One of the most inspiring rituals performed at Samhain rises from the enactment of the Silent Supper.
Along with places set for human guests, the table also holds places for those who have passed beyond the veil.
The chair at the head of the table, shrouded in black, signifies the place of deity.
Six rules exist for the Silent Supper
1. The Silent Supper should take place in sacred space.
2. All plates, napkins, glasses, and the tablecloth should be black.
3. No one may speak from the moment they enter the feast room. Each person participating should leave the room in
silence after the ritual.
4. The feast takes place in candlelight or lamplight.
5. Each living guest should bring a written prayer on a 3x5 inch card or small piece of paper for
their ancestors or loved ones.
6. Each living guest should bring a divination tool of his or her choice.
The timing of the feast depends on your discretion. Some magical practitioners choose midnight of October 30, 31, November 4, or 7. All of these dates coincide with various traditional observances.
The number of guests also depends on your choices. You may wish to enact the silent supper with family members only, or a group of Craft or magical brothers and sisters. This feast works well as a pot luck, where each guest brings a cooked dish of their choice, or you can provide a menu and allow guests to choose what they would like to bring.
Before the ritual begins, put a black votive candle on the plate at each empty place, and a white votive candle on the plate at the head of the table. Create sacred space by calling the quarters. You may also wish to cleanse the area with salt, holy water, incense, and a lighted candle.
The head of the table represents Spirit. Place your hands on the shrouded chair and invite Spirit into the sacred space. Walk to each place set aside for your ancestors, touch the chair, and explain that this ritual will be done in their honor. The host or hostess of the feast sits in the chair opposite Spirit.
As each person enters the room they should touch the chair of Spirit, then walk to the ancestral places, putting their prayers under the plate. They may wish to stop and contemplate at a particular chair, say a prayer in their minds, or simply send loving energy.
After everyone has taken a place, all living guests should join hands and pray silently for the blessing of the meal and those present, both living and dead. Those at the table may wish to symbolically perform the Great Rite, and take communion before the feast. The host or hostess serves the empty plates, beginning at the head of the table first. Continue to serve the living guests in order of age, from the oldest to the youngest.
Because verbal communication doesn't exist during the feast, the host or hostess carries the responsibility of the needs of the living. You may wish to arrange items normally passed throughout a meal (bread, butter, salt, pepper, condiments, etc.) at both ends of the table to lessen any difficulties experienced by the diners. During the meal, the host or hostess should quietly observe the others present to ascertain anything they might need, such as an extra napkin for a slight spill, or the refill of a drink.
At the end of the feast, those at the table again join hands, asking for the blessings of Spirit on the living and the dead. On the lead from the host or hostess, the diners leave the feast area.
They may wish to stop at the empty places, or place of Spirit before they leave.
After the diners leave the room, the host or hostess thanks Spirit and closes the quarters. The guests may now re-enter the room and help to clean up, perhaps sharing their impressions or any messages they may have received during the feast. After you've cleared the table, it's time to break out the divination tools. Guests can separate by pairs, or you can perform a group divination. Allow the candles to burn until the last guest has gone home, then snuff each candle.
Dispose of the candle ends in a living body of water, or bury them off your property.
The Silent Supper creates a deeply moving ceremony, teaches group interaction without speech, and allows you to honor those who have passed from this realm to the next, as well as acknowledge that Spirit moves with us always, through birth and death.
THE HISTORY OF HALLOWE'EN
Many of the customs of Hallowe’en have come down to us from the early ages, and the present Hallowe’en is a combination of various ceremonial days of long ago. The early Romans held a yearly feast in honor of Pomona, the goddess of fruits, and from this festival at the close of harvest, when nuts and fruits were used in abundance, was acquired the popularity of nuts and apples for Hallowe’en revels.
Several centuries before the coming of Christ, the people of ancient Gaul and Britain were largely influenced by priests called Druids. The Druids were very superstitious and had many strange rites for reading the future and obtaining benefits for their people. From their ceremonies after the gathering of the harvest, and from their worship of the sun that he might return and bring them heat for their crops, are derived customs still practiced on Hallowe’en.
The Druids believed that on the last night of the old year, which came when the cattle were brought in from the pastures for the winter, the thirty-first of October, the lord of death gathered together the souls of all those who died during the year. These souls had been condemned to live in various animals and on this night it was decreed what animals they should inhabit during the coming year. This was not only a time of festival, but the presence of the gathered souls called for mystic rites.
Centuries later, when the Christians were no longer persecuted, a day was set apart as All Saint’s Day in memory of all departed saints, whose number was so large they could not be given special days. This became a time of merrymaking that people might forget the thought of death and the malign influences that were supposed to be abroad. This anniversary came upon the first of May, but later it was changed to November the first, and the autumn festival of the Druids became All Saint’s Day.
The superstitious people of Ireland, England and Scotland yearly observed this day, and since it was in memory of the dead they believed that upon this night spirits went abroad, accompanied by witches, goblins and ghosts, who went about playing ill pranks. Spells and charms were supposed to have unusual power and many tests were made to read the future and show the guidings of fate. Robert Burns, in his poems, recounts many of the customs and ceremonies of All Saints’ Day.
Though spirits, witches, fairies, ghosts and goblins are no longer supposed to trouble us at this time, Hallowe’en, the Hallowed Even of All Saints’ Day, is still a time of merrymaking, pranks and mischief, when many of the ancient customs of early days are enjoyed by the boys and girls of the present.
All Hallow's Eve
Sly does it. Tiptoe catspaws. Slide and creep.
But why? What for? How? Who? When! Where did it all begin?
“You don’t know, do you?” asks Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud climbing out of the pile of leaves under the Halloween Tree. “You don’t really know!”
—Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
Samhain. All Hallows. All Hallow’s Eve. Hallow E’en. Halloween. The most magical night of the year. Exactly opposite Beltane on the wheel of the year, Halloween is Beltane’s dark twin. A night of glowing jack-o’-lanterns, bobbing for apples, tricks or treats, and dressing in costume. A night of ghost stories and séances, tarot card readings and scrying with mirrors. A night of power, when the veil that separates our world from the Otherworld is at its thinnest. A “spirit night”, as they say in Wales.
All Hallow’s Eve is the eve of All Hallow’s Day (November 1). And for once, even popular tradition remembers that the eve is more important than the day itself, the traditional celebration focusing on October 31, beginning at sundown. And this seems only fitting for the great Celtic New Year’s festival. Not that the holiday was Celtic only. In fact, it is startling how many ancient and unconnected cultures (the Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans, for example) celebrated this as a festival of the dead. But the majority of our modern traditions can be traced to the British Isles.
The Celts called it Samhain, which means “summer’s end”, according to their ancient twofold division of the year, when summer ran from Beltane to Samhain and winter ran from Samhain to Beltane. (Some modern covens echo this structure by letting the high priest “rule” the coven beginning on Samhain, with rulership returned to the high priestess at Beltane.) According to the later fourfold division of the year, Samhain is seen as “autumn’s end” and the beginning of winter. Samhain is pronounced (depending on where you’re from) as “sow-in” (in Ireland), or “sow-een” (in Wales), or “sav-en” (in Scotland), or (inevitably) “sam-hane” (in the U.S., where we don’t speak Gaelic).
Not only is Samhain the end of autumn; it is also, more importantly, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Celtic New Year’s Eve, when the new year begins with the onset of the dark phase of the year, just as the new day begins at sundown. There are many representations of Celtic Gods with two faces, and it surely must have been one of them who held sway over Samhain. Like his Roman counterpart Janus, he would straddle the threshold, one face turned toward the past, in commemoration of those who died during the last year, and one face gazing hopefully toward the future, mystic eyes attempting to pierce the veil and divine what the coming year holds. These two themes, celebrating the dead and divining the future, are inexorably intertwined in Samhain, as they are likely to be in any New Year’s celebration.
As a feast of the dead, this was the one night when the dead could, if they wished, return to the land of the living, to celebrate with their family, tribe, or clan. And so the great burial mounds of Ireland (sidhe mounds) were opened up, with lighted torches lining the walls, so the dead could find their way. Extra places were set at the table and food set out for any who had died that year. And there are many stories that tell of Irish heroes making raids on the Underworld while the gates of faery stood open, though all must return to their appointed places by cockcrow.
As a feast of divination, this was the night par excellence for peering into the future. The reason for this has to do with the Celtic view of time. In a culture that uses a linear concept of time, like our modern one, New Year’s Eve is simply a milestone on a very long road that stretches in a straight line from birth to death. Thus, the New Year’s festival is a part of time. The ancient Celtic view of time, however, is cyclical. And in this framework, New Year’s Eve represents a point outside of time, when the natural order of the universe dissolves back into primordial chaos, preparatory to reestablishing itself in a new order. Thus, Samhain is a night that exists outside of time and, hence, it may be used to view any other point in time. At no other holiday is a tarot card reading, crystal reading, or tealeaf reading so likely to succeed.
The Christian religion, with its emphasis on the “historical” Christ and his act of Redemption 2000 years ago, is forced into a linear view of time, where seeing the future is an illogical proposition. In fact, from the Christian perspective, any attempt to do so is seen as inherently evil. This did not keep the medieval church from co-opting Samhain’s other motif, commemoration of the dead. To the church, however, it could never be a feast for all the dead, but only the blessed dead, all those hallowed (made holy) by obedience to God—thus, All Hallow’s, or Hallowmas, later All Saints and All Souls.
There are so many types of divination that are traditional to Hallowstide, it is possible to mention only a few. Girls were told to place hazelnuts along the front of the firegrate, each one to symbolize one of her suitors. She could then divine her future husband by chanting, “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.” Several methods used the apple, that most popular of Halloween fruits. You should slice an apple through the equator (to reveal the five-pointed star within) and then eat it by candlelight before a mirror. Your future spouse will then appear over your shoulder. Or, peel an apple, making sure the peeling comes off in one long strand, reciting, “I pare this apple round and round again; / My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain: / I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head, / My sweetheart’s letter on the ground to read.” Or, you might set a snail to crawl through the ashes of your hearth. The considerate little creature will then spell out the initial letter as it moves.
Perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday is the jack-o’- lantern. Various authorities attribute it to either Scottish or Irish origin. However, it seems clear that it was used as a lantern by people who traveled the road this night, the scary face to frighten away spirits or faeries who might otherwise lead one astray. Set on porches and in windows, they cast the same spell of protection over the household. (The American pumpkin seems to have forever superseded the European gourd as the jack-o’- lantern of choice.) Bobbing for apples may well represent the remnants of a Pagan “baptism” rite called a seining, according to some writers. The water-filled tub is a latter-day Cauldron of Regeneration, into which the novice’s head is immersed. The fact that the participant in this folk game was usually blindfolded with hands tied behind the back also puts one in mind of a traditional Craft initiation ceremony.
The custom of dressing in costume and “trick-or-treating” is of Celtic origin, with survivals particularly strong in Scotland. However, there are some important differences from the modern version. In the first place, the custom was not relegated to children, but was actively indulged in by adults as well. Also, the “treat” that was required was often one of spirits (the liquid variety). This has recently been revived by college students who go ‘trick-or-drinking’. And in ancient times, the roving bands would sing seasonal carols from house-to-house, making the tradition very similar to Yuletide wassailing. In fact, the custom known as caroling, now connected exclusively with Midwinter, was once practiced at all the major holidays. Finally, in Scotland at least, the tradition of dressing in costume consisted almost exclusively of cross-dressing (i.e., men dressing as women, and women as men). It seems as though ancient societies provided an opportunity for people to “try on” the role of the opposite gender for one night of the year. (Although in Scotland, this is admittedly less dramatic—but more confusing—since men were in the habit of wearing skirtlike kilts anyway. Oh well...)
To Witches, Halloween is one of the four High Holidays, or Greater Sabbats, or cross-quarter days. Because it is the most important holiday of the year, it is sometimes called “The Great Sabbat”. It is an ironic fact that the newer, self-created covens tend to use the older name of the holiday, Samhain, which they have discovered through modern research. While the older hereditary and traditional covens often use the newer name, Halloween, which has been handed down through oral tradition within their coven. (This often holds true for the names of the other holidays, as well. One may often get an indication of a coven’s antiquity by noting what names it uses for the holidays.)
With such an important holiday, Witches often hold two distinct celebrations. First, a large Halloween party for non- Craft friends, often held on the previous weekend. And second, a coven ritual held on Halloween night itself, late enough so as not to be interrupted by trick-or-treaters. If the rituals are performed properly, there is often the feeling of invisible friends taking part in the rites. Another date that may be utilized in planning celebrations is the actual cross-quarter day, or Old Halloween, or Halloween O.S. (Old Style). This occurs when the sun has reached fifteen degrees Scorpio, an astrological “power point” symbolized by the Eagle. The celebration would begin at sunset. Interestingly, this date (Old Halloween) was also appropriated by the church as the holiday of Martinmas.
Of all the Witchcraft holidays, Halloween is the only one that still boasts anything near to popular celebration. Even though it is typically relegated to children (and the young-atheart) and observed as an evening affair only, many of its traditions are firmly rooted in Paganism. Incidentally, some schools have recently attempted to abolish Halloween parties on the grounds that it violates the separation of state and religion. Speaking as a Pagan, I would be saddened by the success of this move, but as a supporter of the concept of religion-free public education, I fear I must concede the point. Nonetheless, it seems only right that there should be one night of the year when our minds are turned toward thoughts of the supernatural. A night when both Pagans and non-Pagans may ponder the mysteries of the Otherworld and its inhabitants. And if you are one of them, may all your jack-o’-lanterns burn bright on this All Hallow’s Eve.
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