South student observes Halloween as a religious holiday

By Nina Bellio
Published: October 2009

What does Halloween mean to you? Does the word immediately make you think of candy, costumes, elaborate parties, monsters, horror flicks, and ghosts?

In the United States, most of us view Halloween as nothing more than an excuse to dress up and gorge ourselves on Reese’s Cups. Where did Halloween come from, though, and how was it reduced to such a hallmark holiday? The etymology of Halloween points to sixteenth-century Britain; hallow means holy, and e’en is an abbreviation of evening. Thus, All Hallows Eve is the evening before All Saints Day.

When Christianity collided with pre-Christian cultures, the Christians adopted and renamed many holidays, in order to make Christianity more palatable. Before the Catholic Church established their saints’€in fact, millennia before Christ was born’€European clans were celebrating Halloween; they simply called it something different. Samhain (SA-win), Celtic for “end of summer, is the word I use most often when referring to early November festivities because for me, Halloween is more than candy and costumes (though I appreciate those immensely). For me, Samhain is a religious holiday.

No, seriously.

I consider myself an Agnostic Neo-Pagan. Unlike most Pagans, I believe in neither a god nor a goddess, and I do not practice magick. Instead, I honor the sacred balance of male and female in everything, and I live by the Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none, do what ye will. My Irish heritage led me to focus on the Ancient Celts, but there are hundreds of pagan denominations, ranging from mainstream religions, such as Buddhism, to the more obscure, such as faery-worship. Neo-paganism is often a wide range of beliefs spliced together: you might take Karma from Buddhism, gods from Ancient Egypt, rituals from American Indians, and holidays from the Celts, and then apply all four to your life. If that fulfills your spiritual needs, run with it!

Personally, I adopt my holidays from the Celtic tradition. The Celtic year is sliced, like a pie, into eight equal sections by eight major holidays: Samhain, the first and largest festival; Yule, the winter solstice; Imbolc, the approach of spring (equivalent to Groundhog Day); Ostara, the vernal equinox; Beltain, the first day of summer; Litha, the midsummer solstice; Lughnasadh, the first harvest; and finally Mabon, the autumnal equinox.

For the Celts, Samhain, the New Year, marks the final harvest and the first day of winter. Before modern conveniences, the days between Samhain and the solstice were likely the darkest and most deadly days of the year. To prepare themselves for the impending winter, the Celts would harvest the last of their crops and slaughter a few designated livestock, all of which would normally feed a village past Yule. Everyone would extinguish their hearths and relight them with logs from the community bonfire, a tradition of new beginnings as well as a show of unity; each village was determined to survive the winter by working together. Once the harvest was done, they would gather around the bonfire and trade stories about gods and men alike.

Celtic stories during Samhain focused on one god, the guardian of the forest and the spirit world. His original name is lost to us, but the Romans called him Cernunnos, “the Horned One, after the crown of antlers sprouting from his brow. (Christianity would later turn him into the Devil, with horns and cloven hooves to boot.) Originally, he represented the cycle of life’€simultaneously a god of fertility and of death, depending on the time of year. During Beltain, for example, he is a young man, leaping over fires and “blessing young women with fruitful wombs. By Samhain, he is an aged man, dying as the year dies. In other interpretations, Cernunnos is the stag who falls to the hunter’s arrow; the god dies so that his people won’t starve.

The goddesses usually take a back seat during Samhain, a predominantly masculine holiday, but there are still a few feminine aspects to consider, such as the harvested crops. Cerridwen, the mother goddess of life and knowledge, is often depicted as a wise old woman. Just as the stag represents her consort, Cernunnos, the field represents Cerridwen’s fertile’€yet dying’€body. She, too, sacrifices herself to feed her people, ensuring that the cycle of life will continue. Cerridwen gets more of a spotlight during Imbolc (February), when she summons spring with her cauldron of rebirth.

Samhain was a scary holiday’€some things never change. It was a time to confront the unknown, particularly the prospect of death. In Celtic folklore, Samhain Eve was the night when the veil between worlds was thinnest, making Samhain a great time for divination, honoring the dead, and communicating with the gods. Spirits might visit living relatives, and in rare cases unsuspecting mortals might wander across the veil and run into spirits. To frighten away evil spirits, or to hide from them during this mysterious night, people would don costumes and masks. In later centuries children would extort sweets from adults by threatening to play tricks on them, swearing afterward that evil spirits told them to. So while you’re out trick-or-treating or showing off your creative costume, maybe you’ll take a moment to remember where these traditions came from. Long ago, Christmas wasn’t about presents and Valentine’s Day wasn’t about chocolate hearts, just as Halloween had a slightly different emphasis.

This Samhain, I hope that you craftily disguise yourself from evil, and I wish you a sweet harvest¦very sweet.

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