I keep seeing or hearing people discuss how they feel Samhain and/or Halloween should be celebrated. Some say it’s too scary; others that it isn’t scary enough. Some call for more reverence for the ancestors; others feel the holiday has become too somber in Pagan culture. Those later folk embrace the carnival nature that secular Halloween has come to embody. And of course, there are those who turn their nose up at modern Halloween because it’s too disrespectful to the cultures it came from and too materialistic.
Honestly, I find truth in all of those thoughts. Here are my thoughts, but know they are merely my thoughts and not my recipe for Samhain goodness that you must follow or else!
Halloween can be too scary. I remember running out of haunted houses when I was younger and I still dislike most horror films. And I enjoy more whimsical costumes myself. Fairies, historical figures, animals…
Halloween, and Samhain especially, can be too watered down. These traditions originate from the Celts, and it wasn’t just the ancestors who could cross over the veil – it was all of the sidhe realm! Every fairy, goblin, and bump-in-the-night came out. Not all fairies are nice happy things as some modern folk seem to think. That said, not all ancestors are nice either! Nobody wants the unhappy ancestors to visit… And yet, the belief in these Otherworld denizens fueled many of our traditions. Some have suggested that carving turnips or pumpkins into faces could scare away nasty boos. Dressing up in costumes is believed to confuse spirits. People who value and respect the sprits and the Otherworld should feel a sense of fear about Samhain. It adds to the fun but, also, it is good practice to be careful. I know, this time of year, I often look over my shoulder in case the Pooka is about…
There should be more reverence for the ancestors on Samhain. They are part of the reason for the season, if I may borrow that phrase. To completely ignore them feels disrespectful to me. In my belief system, the ancestors come back to visit us and hospitality – towards living and dead – is incredibly important. (At the same time, to only pay them attention on Samhain is equally disrespectful in my point of view).
Samhain can be too somber, and that can make the holiday almost unbearable for some which is a shame when it’s such a sacred time. Sarah Lawless found a way to embrace the carnival nature of the day while also honoring the spookiness and the dead. And it shouldn’t be all sadness, no matter how scary and painful death can be. Joy and fun are the ways we come to terms with death. We remember the good times. Pagan rituals that don’t allow anyone to dress up feel backwards to me. Dr. Jenny Butler recently did an interview on Transceltic and explained many of the fun Samhain traditions, including dressing up in costume on this day. “It is a playful time,” she says, “when it is acceptable to have a subversive appearance, so people can chose to dress as they wish, whether that is as something scary or outlandish.” Trust me, it’s possible to dress in a costume and still feel the fullness of the event. Although I agree that some costume choices are much more appropriate for ritual settings than others!
People have lost touch with Halloween’s roots. Many probably wouldn’t care because they celebrate the secular holiday, and that is fine and well. However, many who embrace Paganism in one of its forms can also forget. It’s a Celtic holiday. It was a time to honor the Ancestors, light bonfires, and engage with the Otherworld. We can get lost in the plastic world of imported costume accessories, racist costume stereotypes, and sugar highs without regard to human dignity, Nature Spirits, of the Earth Mother herself.
So what’s a Gaelic polytheist ditzy Druid in modern America to do?
I find harmony in the blend of Halloween and Samhain.
At least, that’s what I try to do.
Halloween can be too scary. Clowns, for example, are horribly frightening to me. I had a negative experience with one as a child and it left an imprint. However, I can’t try to censor Halloween and tell others not to dress as clowns any more than I can tell someone not to dress as other peoples’ worst nightmares*. I can’t stomach most horror films because they are too gory. I do, however, adore a good ghost story. Halloween should be a little scary. It’s in its DNA! As they say in The Nightmare Before Christmas, “life’s no fun without a good scare.” And it’s true. Sometimes it reminds us what is so precious about life. And that’s why it shouldn’t be all scary. We care tenderly for our beloved dead, for one, and should create a home that is welcoming and warm for them. Bring out the good table settings! And if some people would rather dress as fuzzy rabbits or cute princesses – why not?! Let people have fun on their own terms because, as discussed above, there’s no set costume in Samhain tradition! Get in touch with your inner bard and let your costume tell the story you want!
I have great reverence for the Ancestors, and I could honestly be a lot better about honoring them all year, but I do try. Samhain is a special day, though, when it is believed our beloved dead can return to us. I feel them as the veil thins. They are in my thoughts, my dreams, and sometimes in the corner of my eye. It is not depressing to me, but it feels good to know they want to come see me, check on me, and maybe bestow some kind of blessing. I know I would want to do the same for my loved ones after death. Why not set out a nice spread and be hospitable about it? Why not show that respect while having a good time with the living?
And it needn’t be somber. My experience with ADFers has taught me how to find a good balance between the deep reverence and joviality. Samhain, more than any other High Day, moves me in a way that is almost ineffable. It is one of the few rites where I seem to laugh and cry every time. Even if I haven’t lost someone that year, the sorrow from others impacts me deeply. Again, it reminds me just how precious life and our time with other loved ones is. And so we laugh as well because we remember those good times and enjoy new ones with those around us. To me, you must have both to fully experience Samhain’s mystery.
Finally, in my household, Samhain is deeply Celtic. The holiday came from Celtic cultures, Halloween traditions were brought over by Irish immigrants, and those are deeply respected under my roof. If you should stop by, expect to hear some Irish music playing. Expect to see carved turnips. If you come to a Northern River’s ritual on Samhain, expect to see us honoring the ancestors as well as the Tuatha de Dannan. In my opinion, to have a ritual with any other cultural focus but Celtic (a specific culture or pan if you must), is just nonsensical since the holiday has Celtic roots and, chances are, the other culture you wish to honor already has a holiday with similar traditions. If you must celebrate using different cultural symbols, why not just research that culture and use the name they would have instead of one originating from Celtic languages? And although I will be embracing the Celtic traditions to the best of my ability, I’m still a modern American of mixed cultural background. You will hear modern Halloween songs playing along with the traditional and folk. You’ll see big orange and white pumpkins along with the turnips. You’ll see me handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, although, this year, I’m doing my best to give out more eco-friendly varieties**.
But that is just in my sphere of influence!
If I visit your household or your spiritual circle and find you doing differently than I, I will respect you as a human being. I understand we aren’t all cut from the same spiritual or cultural cloth. I know some of us find value and purpose in celebrating differently. It’s not my place to throw my weight around. Several years ago, I tried to argue with folks who wanted to do a completely Hellenic rite while calling it Samhain and it didn’t end well. I’ve grown up since then and realize that is not the way to conduct myself. I may not do things the same way or agree with you, but I would rather work on finding my own harmony with Samhain than insist on how you should find yours.
On that note, no matter how you celebrate, I hope you are just as excited to celebrate Samhain! Wishing you a blessed Samhain my lovely readers!
* There is, of course, a time and place for some costumes. We all have our boundaries and we must respect the wishes of hosts and hostesses. In other words, if you show up to my home as a clown, I may punch you in the face!
** Even if you can’t afford organic candies, at least try to avoid chocolate that isn’t fair-trade. Human dignity and preserving the world’s biodiversity are worth more to me than an affordable chocolate fix!