The dusty, federal blue feathers of a Steller’s Jay on my railing are skimmed by the morning light. Only sparse yellow and orange leaves grace the branches of the trees outside. Most of them have already greyed and fallen. The valley feels as if it is looking to the sky, waiting for snow.
Tomorrow is Halloween, or should I say Samhain. Samhain was merged with All Soul’s Day by the Catholic Church when they tried to take over all of the “heretic pagan festivals” with their own holidays to try to get people to stop celebrating them. I find it hilarious that they thought it was more civilized and godly to replace a somewhat benign harvest Holliday with a much darker Holliday. All Souls Day was a solemn celebration in the Roman Catholic Church commemorating all of those who have died and who are now are in purgatory, being cleansed of their venial sins and the temporal punishments for the mortal sins that they have to confess to and atone for before entering fully into Heaven. The result of Samhain being combined with such a grim Holliday, is that it took a rather dark turn. Instead of a harvest festival that included honoring the dead, it became a day to commemorate horror, torture, punishment and death.
People want to feel something. They suppress the darker aspects of themselves (the aspects they are ashamed of) until they have an excuse to let it out. Halloween has become an excuse to let it out. Like horror’s Mardi Gras. The horror and gore that has taken this Holliday over is a much different experience for someone like myself, who has actually experienced the things people like to watch in horror films or go to haunted houses and corn mazes to experience. It cannot be celebrated if you know what the reality of it feels like.
In ancient times, religions were based upon nature, which was the true government of someone’s life. Humanity lived in tune with the earth, especially the changing of the seasons and the changes of the stars in the sky. Back then, the very things your life depended on, like the crops, became part of your religion. Samhain was one such Holliday. It marked the end of harvest and the beginning of Winter. It was celebrated from sunset on the last day of October to sunset on the first day of November.
All the crops that were not already collected and stored for Winter, were gathered on Samhain. Cattle and other stock were brought down from the higher, summer pastures and many were slaughtered for Winter. Large bonfires were lit and the town partook in traditional rituals, usually rituals that involved divination. Samhain was seen as a between time when the spirits could more easily come into our world because the veil between dimensions was thinner. As a result, they believed you could easily divine the future. Many of their rituals involved foretelling the future of the clan or people in the village. One tradition is that people would gather around the bonfire and each village member would place a rock around the fire in an organized circle. The circle of rocks was left out overnight and in the morning, if a rock was displaced to the outside the circle, it was an omen that that person (who had placed the rock) would fall sick during the Winter or even die.
People would also make a special cake with tokens baked inside of it. Each token meant something, like a new baby or wealth or a wedding or a death. The cake would be cut up into pieces and if a person got a piece with a token, that token would be a promise of what was to come for them in the year ahead. Many believed that the souls of the dead would come back to visit their families. They would ritualistically put an extra place setting at the table for them in honor of their return.
During some celebrations of Samhain, villagers would disguise themselves in costumes made of animal skins to drive away unwanted spirit visitors. This is thought to be the origin of the tradition of the halloween costume. It is said that certain Celtic villages would set out large banquet tables full of food to placate the spirits. As a result, people began dressing as ghosts, demons and other malevolent creatures, performing antics so as to provoke the receiving of food and drink. This custom, which is known as mumming, dates back to the Middle Ages. Later in history, poor people would visit the houses of wealthy families and receive pastries called “soul cakes” in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. This practice, which was known as “souling”, was eventually taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food, money and ale.
According to Halloween historians, young people took part in a tradition called guising, dressing up in costume and accepting offerings from various households. But as time went on, rather than pledging to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform another sort of “trick” before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts or coins. This is thought to be the root of trick-or-treating.
I was curious this morning about why there is an association between Halloween and witches riding flying broomsticks. So I went out of body to see for myself. I found that there used to be a ritual among Wiccan and Pagan women, where they would go out to the crops and symbolically sweep over the top of them to clean and purify the energy of the soil for Winter and for next year's crops. But, I also found that some crops they grew were either themselves alkaloid hallucinogens (like henne-belle) or contained fungus that were powerful hallucinogens. Some witches that practiced magic in association with the Wiccan and Pagan faith, would make flying ointment or witches brew out of these hallucinogenic compounds. They were absorbed through the skin. They would then anoint a staff or often a broom handle (as brooms were used symbolically in pagan rituals) and anoint themselves with it in certain places, like their arm pits and ride on it, allowing the ointment to be absorbed through their sexual organs. The hallucinations would often cause the witches to dance about in a crazed way and feel as if they were flying. Basically, early European witches were using their hallucinogen-laden broomsticks to get high.
I remember trick or treating as a kid. My favorite costume, was a horse costume. I had no friends so my parents would take me and my brother into town and take us from house to house. I collected candy in a little yellow school bus lunch box. I had social anxiety and was happy to get the candy but mortified to ring the doorbell and say trick or treat. I remember the old grandmas coming out to admire the costumes and I remember the different rich smells accompanying the warm air in the houses wafting out to greet us on the patios. I hated going up to the scary houses, the ones where the owners would deliberately act like a statue and then jump at us. I most vividly remember how awesome it was to go to those houses that gave out full size candy bars instead of the little bite size candy. I made a vow that when I grew up, I’d be THAT house… the one that gave the best treats in the neighborhood. And ever since I have owned a house, I have lived up to that vow.
My favorite part of Halloween is figuring out what exciting thing I’m going to hand out to the children on Halloween. I’m going shopping today specifically for that purpose. I am not the one who answers the door when it rings on Halloween night, but if there is a group of adorable children in particularly benign costumes, I watch them through the window as they come to the door. I love to see their faces when I have impressed them with this year’s selection of goody. Gifts are after all my primary love language.
My son has decided to spend this Halloween weekend with his grandparents. It will be the first Holliday I have spent away from him. I will miss getting him dressed up in his little costume and I will miss taking him to the toy store to trade in his candy for toys. There is nothing quite like following a wide-eyed child that is full of delight through the aisles of a toy store. If I could bottle the excited wonderment of a child and sell it, I’d be the wealthiest person on earth.
I think it is important that we individually question our Holidays fully. Tradition is only as good as tradition does. Tradition should never be upheld for tradition’s sake, but rather because the tradition still adds something beneficial to your life. Do away with the traditions that have no place in your life anymore. Add new ones. Holidays can be wonderful if you have the initiative to turn them into what you want them to be.
I have made Halloween what I want it to be. I want to hear from you… what is your favorite part of Halloween?
What do you want Halloween to be?