Witch’s New Year – The Origins of Halloween

An early 20th century Hallowe'en greeting card
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The wheel of the year is turning and today we are exactly half way between the Equinox and the Solstice.

This week we honor those who have passed before us (and here in the U.S. many of us will be honoring candy manufacturers – ah well.)

In celebration of the season, I’m stepping away from the wellness theme for a minute and thought I’d share this article I wrote a while back about how this day came to be Halloween. Enjoy.

October is drawing to a close – it’s the waning of the year. Darkened sunflowers loom over long shadows in my garden, their faces brown, withered leaves drooping.

My instinct is to yank up these flowers so obviously past their prime. But though their golden luminosity is faded, the seeds for the next generation quietly form on that blackened disk.

These brown and unlovely sunflowers are a metaphor for the energy of this time of year. All around us are signs of decay and death. Leaves fade from brilliant reds and oranges to more muted colors before falling to the ground. Meadow grasses are dry and yellowed, gray skies seem heavier and the sun’s visits are shorter and shorter.

Daylight Savings will end next weekend, just in time for one of my favorite holidays – Halloween. Many people think this is just a Hallmark Holiday – a fanciful celebration for children – but observances of Halloween stretch back into antiquity.

The Celts knew it as Samhain (pronounced Sah-wain,), which literally meant “Summer’s End.” They divided the year into two seasons, the light and the dark; Beltane brought the light on May 1 and Samhain ushered in the darkness on November 1.

Beltane is a time of merrymaking and happy mischief  when fairies were thought to wander abroad in the night nibbling on the goodies left out for them. Samhain is like the dark twin of Beltane, instead of fairies it is the spirits of those who have passed before us who wander through the night.

Samhain is well known to be a night in which the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, meaning it is easiest to communicate with the dead.

These ancient beliefs were so powerful that many Samhain practices show up in our modern culture as the games and rituals for our Halloween holiday. Of all the eight ancient Pagan holidays, marking the Wheel of the Year, this is the only one that is still celebrated in mainstream culture.

We even celebrate it on the “eve” of the day just as they did in ancient times, thus the name of “All Hallow’s Eve.” The cardboard skeletons hanging on doors, the ghosts and witches taped to windows, hearken back to a time when people set out food for the visiting spirits of those who had died during the year.

In fact, many ancient cultures, besides the Celts, celebrate this time of year with a Festival of the Dead. You may be  familiar with the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead where altars are built with offerings to honor the loved ones who have passed on. I love this tradition and set up an altar each year in my living room with photos of my mother and other beloved ancestors and friends who have left this earth.

The majority of our modern traditions, however, can be traced to the British Isles – for instance, the carving and lighting of jack-o-lanterns. Travelers carried these at night, the scary face meant to frighten away spirits or fairies who might lead them astray. They set them on porches and in windows to cast a spell of protection over the household. Of course early Europeans used gourds for these purposes, but now the American pumpkin has become our jack-o-lantern of choice.

The Halloween ritual of trick-or-treating is passed down to us from the Celts as well. But back then it was not relegated to children, and the “treat” was often spirits of the liquid sort. The wearing of costumes and masks carried different significance in different cultures and eras.

In Scotland dressing up for Samhain consisted almost exclusively of cross-dressing. For just this one night of the year people got a chance to try on the role of the opposite gender.

A Halloween party wouldn’t be complete without a rousing session of bobbing for apples. These apple games are also passed down to us, growing out of the Celtic belief in the apple as a holy fruit, sacred and magical. Apples represented immortality, death and rebirth.

In myths the apples of the Goddess signified a journey to the land of death and rebirth – thus their association with this season of emerging darkness. In later times, people played various apple games to tell the future or to see who would someday marry. When you slice an apple cross-wise, a five- pointed star is revealed – a sacred symbol, which appears over and over again in the natural world.

As in all the ancient festivals, people celebrated Samhain with bonfires. The Celts lit special fires called ‘samhnagan’ on hilltops and burial mounds. All the fires in the community were ritually put out and were then rekindled from the samhnagan. Villagers cast the bones of slaughtered cattle into the flames, and the word ‘bonfire’ derives from these “bone fires.”

The fires blazed on through the centuries. In the 1860s the Halloween bonfires were still so popular in Scotland that one traveler reported seeing thirty fires lighting up the hillsides all on one night, each surrounded by rings of dancing figures.

It’s funny how ancient traditions live on like that and yet are transformed by new belief systems. The Christian Church transformed this ancient Samhain Festival to a feast of the “blessed dead,” those who had been “hallowed” or made holy by obedience to God. And so Samhain became “All Hallow’s Day,” which later became All Saint’s Day or All Soul’s Day.

Although these holidays are still observed in the church, the Christian fathers were unsuccessful in neutralizing the playful pagan celebrations that we still see today on All Hallow’s Eve. But our celebrations are still pale shadows of the rich traditions and legends enjoyed by our ancestors.

The darkness was sacred to the Ancient Celts. They did not fear darkness and death as we do today, but instead held a deep respect for their mystical power. Our ancestors understood that they represented the cauldron of regeneration, the underworld that nurtured seeds of rebirth.

At Samhain, as the earth plunged into the darkest time of year, they blessed the seeds and welcomed this period of rest and renewal. Samhain was considered The Witch’s New Year, the last great Festival in the Wheel of the Year before the cycle began anew at Winter Solstice.

What about all the stories of witches flying through the night on Halloween? They may be representations of Hel, a Norse goddess of the underworld.  It’s interesting that the word “Hell” is actually derived from Hel. Although Hel was honored throughout the Celtic world as the dark regenerative aspect of the Goddess, she became personified as an evil witch during the Middle Ages.

The world “hag” originally meant holy woman, wise woman, healer, but of course came to mean ugly old witch. So the image of the witch carries a special significance of the healing and regeneration that comes with acknowledging and accepting darkness and death. No wonder it’s always been my favorite costume!

I used to dread this time of year – the darkness, the cold, the lack of bold and beautiful colors in the natural world, the sleepiness that accompanies dark mornings and early nightfall. Now, I know this is an opportunity to welcome the darkness and the void, to learn from the wisdom of those who have passed on before me, and incubate the seeds that will soon sprout and take me into new directions.

So Happy Halloween and Blessed Samhain! May our encounters with witches, skeletons and ghosts this year remind us to honor and appreciate our beloved dead!

The above article appeared in The Arcata Eye in 2005.

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One Response to Witch’s New Year – The Origins of Halloween

  1. I love this, Sarah! I’m going to print it out so that my family will read it. Well done!

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