I’ve always loved Halloween. I come by it naturally, as it’s also my mother’s favorite holiday. She used to make our costumes herself — and not just one but usually three, for each of us — one for school, one for church, and one for trick-or-treating. And we almost always won the costume contests. I love the costumes, the trick-or-treating, the whole scary-but-fun atmosphere. And then there’s the fact that it’s the only time of the year a straight guy can be flamboyant without apology in this homophobic American culture.
So when I became Pagan, I was ready to embrace Halloween as a Pagan holy day. I was disappointed to learn that most Pagans celebrate Samhain as a kind of Pagan Day of the Dead or All Souls Day, with little to no connection to the secular celebration of Halloween. (This explains the befuddled look I got from the leader of m local CUUPS group years ago, when I, being new to the group, asked her if we should wear costumes to the Samhain celebration.)
There is only one major American holiday that corresponds directly with a Neo-Pagan holiday, and it’s Halloween. Christmas/Yule is a close second, with the moveable Easter feast coming in third (since it sometimes falls on or near the spring equinox). Memorial Day and Labor Day are loosely related to Beltane and Mabon in that they mark the beginning and end of the American cultural summer.
But Halloween is ready-made for Pagan appropriation. Sure, it’s completely secularized (just like much of Christmas is). But despite its modern and secular origins, Halloween just begs to be a Pagan holy day. I actually think those Christians who freak out about the (small-p) pagan-ness of Halloween are on to something. Halloween was made for us! After all, t’s the only time of the year when we can do weird things around a bonfire at night in our backyard and not draw too much attention to ourselves. And while its origins are not ancient, it’s a practice that feels pagan (kind of like of like Morris Dancing).
I like celebrating Halloween as a holy day so much that I break my general rule about celebrating the cross-quarters on their actual celestial date, which fall a couple of days to a week after their traditional dates. (The autumn cross-quarter this year falls on November 6th.) In the case of Samhain, it just makes sense to synchronize it with the secular holiday.
I know that many Pagans associate the day with their ancestors because the Celts supposedly believed that the “veil between the worlds” is thinnest on this day. But for me, nothing about Halloween makes me think of my great-grand parents. And the high-spirited atmosphere of Halloween contrasts with what I feel when I remember my ancestors. While I suppose a Pagan Day of the Dead could be a festive day, like it is in Mexico, visiting graves on Memorial Day is always a somber event for me. And it’s just hard to maintain the an attitude appropriate for one’s ancestors when everyone else around you is having an American Mardi Gras.
I do think it is very important to have a Pagan holy day honoring our ancestors; I just think it should be separate. For that reason, it makes sense to me to celebrate All Hallows on October 31st and then do a Pagan “All Souls” Day later, like on November 2nd. We could call it Pagan Remembrance Day or Ancestor Day or something like that. I’m sure this would bug some formerly-Catholic Pagans, but I love (re-)Paganizing Christian motifs, so it doesn’t both me.
Nor do I associate Samhain with the New Year, like some Pagans do. I have my doubts about whether Samhain really was the New Year for ancient Celts, but in any case, it was much more common for ancient pagans around the world to observe the New Year on the winter solstice or the spring equinox. Yule just makes more sense to me as the Pagan New Year.
Rather than the ancestors, Halloween and this time of the year in general call to my mind another Pagan motif entirely: the Wild Hunt, the wild, daemonic forces that bring on the winter. This fits with timing of Samhain around mid-autumn when the weather where I live starts to get rainy and cold and it feels like winter is just around the corner. And the storms naturally invoke thoughts of the Wild Hunt.
For me, Halloween/Samhain marks the time on the Wheel of the Year when the Dark God is crowned as the Holly King and leads the Wild Hunt as it emerges from Underworld to roam the winter countryside, with the Dark Queen riding beside him in her devouring aspect as the Huntress. And I like to imagine the masks and costumes people wear as a way of fooling the Wild Hunt so they don’t get carried off. This is not the true history behind the tradition of trick-or-treating, but it’s a neat fit symbolically.
The name “Hallow’een” or “All Hallow’s Eve” fits the theme too. Hallows means “holy”, so All Hallows means “All Holy”, and to me that fits with the meaning of the day as a time for remembering the dark gods, because to Pagans they are holy too. The name “Hallow’een” says to me, “It’s all ‘hallow’ or sacred, even the dark and the frightening.” And that is a Pagan message if there ever was one.
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This is pretty much what we do as well. Halloween is a time for us to embrace our inevitable death as well as be as impish as possible, just like the wild fairies and spirits of the darker time of year. Then on November 1st-2nd, we make an ofrenda and talk about all our good memories we have of our deceased family. we usually have a nice family meal to honor them. It allows us to transition into the time of year when we celebrate and give thanks to our living friends and family. So glad I’m not the only Pagan who celebrates Halloween!!
Thanks for an interesting article. One point though. There is no sensible reason why pagans should not celebrate Samhain as an ancient festival of the dead. The reasons Frazer put together for thinking that this happened are persuasive, at least for me. In “The Stations of the Sun” Hutton describes Frazer’s argument as “nonsense”. But what in fact happened is that Hutton simply failed to read accurately what Frazer had written. Hutton also failed to read accurately what Sir John Rhys wrote about the Celtic New Year. I go into these issues in my paper “Ronald Hutton, Sir James Frazer and the Discrediting of Pagan Beliefs in The Stations of the Sun”. This can be read at http://www.pagansbeliefs.com.