I love Halloween! It has always been one of my favorite holidays. I love wandering down dark streets in the crisp air, with the leaves crunching under my feet, passing strange apparitions, always with a hint of fear, the sense that something is lurking in the darkness. Since I grew older, my attention shifted away from trick-or-treating and parties towards the main theme of this dark festival: death.
Halloween is one of the great quarter-days or pagan festivals which fall midway between the solstices and the equinoxes. That makes it an agricultural festival — it marks the time of the last harvest, the winter slaughter, the death of the crops and the rest cycle of the land. The Saxons called it Winter’s Eve. The Celts called it Samhain, which means “summer’s end.” To the Celts, the day began with night fall. Thus it was natural for the year to begin at the start of the darkest time of the year. Celtic feasts were celebrated from sunset to sunset, so Samhain began at sunset on October 31st and continued until sunset November 1st. The Feast of All Saints, which came into existence in the 7th century, was commemorated on November 1 under the name of All Hallows Day, from which we get the name Halloween (the eve of Hallows). The following day, November 2, is All Souls Day, a day when the priest wears black, the church is draped with mourning and the faithful pray for the souls of their departed, with the hope of shortening their time in Purgatory.
The Day of the Dead
In Mexico, All Souls Day is called Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and is a time of commemorating the dead by decorating their tombs (with marigolds, a flower sacred to the Aztecs) and inviting them to a feast in their honor. Families go to the cemetery for a picnic and eat skeleton cookies and sugar skull cakes. Trick-or-treating derives from an ancient British custom of going from house to house begging for soul-cakes. Some say the soul-cakes were given to the priest to buy Masses for the souls of relatives in Purgatory. Others believe they were offerings to the dead. Candles flickering in the windows (or pumpkins) were meant to serve as beacons for the dead, just as on the similar holiday in Japan, lanterns are hung by the garden gates.
The Month of Blood
There are some obvious reasons why this place on the Wheel of the Year is associated with death. The sun is approaching its nadir, the leaves are falling from trees, the death and decay in the natural world remind us of our own mortality. Martinmas, November 11th, was the traditional time for slaughtering the cattle, sheep and pigs which could not be maintained during the winter. The Welsh called November the month of Slaughter while the Saxons called it the Month of Blood. In the Odyssey, Odysseus summons the shades of the dead by sacrificing animals. Their blood drains into a pit and the restless shades come eagerly crowing up from the underworld. Odysseus holds them at bay with his sword until the particular spirit he wants comes forward, laps up the blood and then prophesies what will happen in the future. This scene combines the themes of fear, slaughter, death, the Underworld, ghosts and divination which are common to Halloween.
Honoring the Dead
There are many ways you can honor the dead, starting with the simple act of setting out food for them. While you’re at home and can properly supervise, place lighted candles in the windows to serve as beacons for the spirits. Host a Feast of the Dead as I will be this year with my coven family & friends. Set a place at the table for the dead and offer them servings of the food you eat. Invite departed friend and relatives, ancestors and heroines. Ask the living participants to share a memory about someone who has died who was important to them. Light a candle or ring a bell for each person after you speak about them. In Feeding the Spirit, Cunningham suggests a variation of a Shinto tradition: cut out or draw pictures of things the dead would like. Then burn them in the fire (or candle flame), saying something like, “George, I am sending you new clothes for your journey in the spirit world.” You can also make an altar for your ancestors. Z Budapest in Grandmother of Time suggests putting pictures of your departed relatives in the middle of the altar, burning white and yellow devotional candles and incense, and talking to them. If you feel uncomfortable talking out loud, write letters. You can burn these too and imagine the smoke carrying your message.
Decorating for this holy day is easy since there are so many items available for Halloween which will set the proper tone of mortality: autumn leaves, skeletons, miniature coffins, skulls, tombstones, pumpkins carved with terrifying faces, black candles. While you enjoy the fruits of the harvest, you can honor their source by wassailing the trees. Go out to the trees which have shared their bounty with you and thank them, drink a toast and pour a libation on their roots. For a dramatic but simple Halloween ritual I recommend this piece of the long and beautiful Samhain ritual described by Starhawk in The Spiral Dance. Light candles in a dark room. Take a pomegranate and hold it up saying, “Behold, the fruit of life —” Put it down on a plate and cut it open with a knife, saying “— which is death.” The ruby-red juice of the pomegranate will look like blood in the candlelight. Then hold up an especially shiny red apple — one that reminds you of the apple the stepmother gave Snow White — and say “Behold the fruit of death —” Put it down and slice it open horizontally rather than vertically. Hold it up so others can see the five-pointed star made by the seeds and say “— which is life.” Cut up the rest of the apple and feed it to each other or use it for one of the many forms of divination.
Divining the Future
After being fed and entertained, the ghosts might provide oracular advice as they did for Odysseus. Since the spirits are so close to us on this night, this is an excellent time for all forms of divination. You have more access to your personal underworld, your unconscious. Consult your favorite oracle — the tarot cards, the I Ching, a Ouija board, runes, tea leaves or a crystal ball, etc. Request images of what you can become or what you will do in the new year. There are many traditional forms of divination practiced on this night, most of them used to reveal the identity of your future spouse. If this is not something you need to know, ask for another vision. Several forms of divination involve apples. For instance, you are advised to take a candle, go alone to a mirror in a darkened room and eat the apple while looking into it, combing your hair all the while. The face of your lover — or the Devil — will appear over your shoulder. A variation of this says you only have to peel the apple while looking into the mirror. You can also cut an apple into nine equal parts, eat eight of them, toss the ninth over your left shoulder, turn quickly and glimpse your future mate. There is something to be said for helping the spirits provide the answer which is in your best interest.
Barolini, Helen, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays, Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich 1988 Budapest, Z, Grandmother of Time, Harper and Row 1989 Cunningham, Nancy Brady, Feeding the Spirit, Resource Publications 1988 Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987 Owen, Trefor, Welsh Folk Customs, Llandysul, Dyfed: Gomer Press Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, Harper & Row 1979