My Regular Pagan Holiday Greeting
Halloween might be the one pagan holiday that neither the Romans nor the catholic church could suppress or usurp, even after centuries of trying.
The Celt holiday of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) celebrated the end of summer and the start of winter. Celts believed that on the night of October 31 the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. People lit sacred bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. In some places, people doused their hearth fires on Samhain night; then each family solemnly re-lit its hearth from the communal bonfire, thus bonding the community together.
The Celts lived 2000 years ago in what later became Ireland, the UK and northern France. The 400-year occupation by the Romans left some cultural traditions. At Feralia the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. And the festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees whose symbol is the apple, was held November 1. In Celtic mythology, apples were strongly associated with the Otherworld and immortality.
Then the christians invaded. Over the centuries, a couple of popes made the effort to subsume the pagan holiday under a new Christian one on November 2, All Souls Day. As with other pagan holidays, it is widely understood that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, church-sanctioned holiday.
But the old customs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. Instead, the first night of Samhain, October 31, became All Hallows Day Evening, the night before the saints were venerated. That name eventually morphed into Halloween. One of the rituals adopted from the Celts waspumpkin carving, which held religious significance. The jack-o-lantern custom consisted of placing fire—which imitates the good magic of the sun—inside a hollowed out vegetable (usually a turnip), representing the harvest. The hope was that the good magic would help to preserve the harvested food through the dark half of the year, until the next growing season could replenish the community’s food stocks.
The practice of trick-or-treating began as the Celtic custom of giving token bits of the harvest to spirits wandering outside of houses on the evening of Samhain to placate them and prevent them from doing destructive things to the harvest or to homes.
Centuries later, Halloween customs were brought to the U.S. by immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and other ancient homelands of the Celts. That’s when pumpkins took over from turnips to make jack-o-lanterns, a modern advancement.
Here in Santa Rosa, Holly and I have invented new rituals and customs for Samhain.
The blessing of the flip flops. During the changing of the footwear we remove our flip flops and put them away for the winter after kissing them and telling them we appreciate their hard work of protecting our feet all summer. Then we don our winter slippers.
The beanie and toque resurrection. We bring down the box of winter hats, scarves and gloves from the top shelf of the closet where they have patiently waited all summer.
The moving of the deck furniture. All summer the outdoor couch has sat in the shade where we could be comfortable even on hot days. At this time of year we move the couch to a sunny spot on the deck near the house. The ceremony consists of grabbing the couch, saying one two three up and carefully carrying it to its new place.
The building of the ofrenda. Our little Dia de los Muertos altar sits on the fireplace mantle where we assemble pictures and clay figurines of friends and family who have died. We are reminded that many cultures remember their dead at this time of year.
The planting of the peas, the harvesting of persimmons and pomegranates. October is the time to plant sugar snap peas so we can eat them right off the vine in Spring. We also plant cover crops and colorful flowers like violas and pansies to keep us smiling through the winter. My favorite fall salad is made with persimmons, pomegranates, pecans and pears with a citrus dressing (I call it the P salad).
Wishing you, your pods and families a happy Halloween.