The festival known as Samhain, or more commonly Halloween, is celebrated on October 31 in the Northern Hemisphere (April 30-May 1 in the Southern Hemisphere). For many Neo-Pagans, this is the end of one yearly cycle and the beginning of a new one. This links closely to the harvest when the last of the abundant crops are picked and a winter mindset begins setting in. It’s a time to bring closure to the year, honoring the process of death and rebirth, and to play around with some new possibilities for the coming year, at least for a while.
Professor Bettina Arnold of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee gave a lecture on October 31, 2001, about Halloween customs in the Celtic world. She discusses how important boundaries were to the Celts, making Samhain one of the few times of the year when the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead aren’t as clearly marked.
She mentions the dual purpose of these boundaries, which reminds me of the function of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded Hades in Greek mythology. There’s a place for the dead where the living don’t belong, and the place where the living are isn’t where the dead belong. On Halloween night, the boundaries are fuzzy, reminding us that the separation of life and death isn’t actually as defined as we generally believe.
Some people honor this by trying to communicate with the spirits of those who have passed away. Others just remember them with photos on their altars or memories. We don’t, of course, just have to stick to our families and friends. We can honor anyone who’s passed away and who’s special to us or contributed something valuable to the world.
“Halloween 2014” by Rainbow Gryphon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
In the yearly cycle, Samhain is the time to start wrapping things up for the year. It’s a good time to assess what we’ve done since last Halloween. If we accomplished everything we had hoped to accomplish then we deserve a pat on the back. If we didn’t but there are things we could bring closure to then it’s a good time to plan to do that.
If we didn’t and couldn’t accomplish what we’d planned for the year then we need to think hard about why we didn’t. The cyclical nature of the Neo-Pagan year makes such things less traumatic than a linear concept of the year. A cycle has ended but time is still there to support our efforts as we go into the next cycle. We can chalk it up to experience and start thinking about how we can do better in the next yearly cycle.
Preparation for Rebirth
In “Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal,” Alexai Kondratiev writes about the possible meaning of Samhain as “end or concealment of summer,” and I think the word “concealment” is significant here. It’s not that the sun dies; it’s that it’s hidden from us. Illumination is always within darkness. He writes that
[t]he moment of death — the passing into the concealing darkness — is itself the first step in the renewal of life.
It’s difficult for us to appreciate this in our hectic, modernized world where planes and cars can take us where we want to go in spite of the weather, fruit and vegetables can be flown in from across the country as if the growing season never ends, and we’re constantly hounded by the need to achieve more. The preparation for rebirth is a slow one. Rebirth doesn’t happen on a seasonal scale until spring. Samhain only marks the beginning.
Wearing costumes, which in my experience is one of people’s favorite aspects of Halloween, is a kind of rebirth ritual in the sense that we transform into someone (or something!) else in the darkness of the night, when anything can happen. Even if we don’t literally dress up, we can dress up in our minds, imagining we’re what we’ve always wanted to be. Samhain is a good time to celebrate that, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.
We have a choice as to whether we’ll be the same when we wake up the next morning, thinking the same things, doing the same things, and feeling the same things, or not. Obviously, if we’re content then there’s no problem. But if we’re not and we let the energy of Samhain pass us by, we’re resisting the spirit of rebirth and have essentially relegated ourselves to the world of the dead. Samhain is a time to step over the gate between what exists now and what could exist, but we should return to the land of our destructive behaviors from the land of unlimited potential with greater awareness.
The themes of death and rebirth at this festival are inescapable and may seem morbid unless we appreciate that without the old stuff dying out, the new stuff can’t emerge within us. Psychologically and emotionally, this is because what’s old and needs to die contradicts what’s new and authentic that needs to come into being. Perhaps the main message of Samhain is that there are no limitations, even when there appear to be.