A Brief History of Samhain
Samhain (sah-win) is probably the most well-known of the witchly holidays, even among the normies who call it “Halloween”. Jk, you can call it Halloween too and not be a normie!
Samhain takes place from the evening of October 31st through November 1st. As with most pagan festivals, the traditions were practical as well as ceremonial: on this occasion the last of the crops had to be picked, herds of livestock had to be thinned for winter, and fires had to be lit earlier in the day as the dark season settled in.
All of this marked the official end of not only summer but the whole year, a bridge between death and new life. It makes sense that the collective consciousness would feel a lot closer to the spirit world during this time, wondering if they and their families would survive the winter. But that doesn't mean it was a morose holiday: hopeful would be a better descriptor. Honoring ancestors, divining the future with apple seeds, getting frisky in the face of death, all of these rituals were meant to reassure each other that summer would come again and if it didn't, well, going into winter with a bad attitude certainly wouldn't help! Echoes of those traditions still exist in our modern Halloween celebrations (so yes, the history does allow for sexy costumes).
Okay, can I be honest with y’all? I always kind of procrastinate writing these holiday histories. I never quite know what to say that hasn't been said, and usually all I can think is "but we're NOT getting our livestock ready for the winter... so..."
Pagan/witchy holidays look very different today than they did when our ancestors were celebrating, IF they celebrated at all (assuming that every witch has Celtic/European roots is not cool) so it can be tough to explain exactly what and why and how we’re supposed to celebrate now… yes, being a witch by definition means living closer to nature and interpersonal energy, but it's 2021. The ancestors who celebrated these days weren't witches, just people, and our relationship with nature today is way different than theirs back in 1550-whatever, so are we really and truly living up to our full practice by mimicking those traditions without the substance to back it up?
So that brings us to Halloween, right? Fake spiderwebbed, orange glittered, candy-coated Halloween.
There are mixed feelings among witches about the mainstream recognition of Samhain, and some might cry “sellout” or “poser” or any number of petty things that say a lot more about them than they do about the target of their scorn (who is almost always a person and not the actual system enforcing these values). If you watch our Ask A Witch IG Live videos, you know that a lot of people ask us what we think of people casting spells who aren't "real witches". My answer: there's no such thing. Even on Halloween.
Now, is Halloween an extremely commercialized, capitalist holiday that reinforces western beauty standards and lines the pockets of whoever owns Spirit Halloween? Yes. Does every Salem resident from September 1st-November 1st have something snarky to say about the hordes of Halloween tourists visiting our seaside city? Yes. But do any of those things have anything to do with your own relationship to the bridge between summer and winter, life and death, Earth and the Spirit World? NO! Does the collective buzz in the air actually add to the power of peeking behind the veil? I say yes.
Everything is capitalist all of the time and being a witch means working outside of that system even just for an evening. Or an hour. There are plenty of ways to participate in Samhain/Halloween authentically, and I mean that in the anti-capitalist sense AND the "wait I'm not actually harvesting any crops so why am I doing this whole crop-harvesting ritual" sense. The veil IS thin right now, if anything because we came to a global consensus that it is. Even folks who have never heard of Samhain and wouldn't consider themselves particularly mystical any other time are out here telling ghost stories and wearing witch hats. Is that not just as "traditional" as washing your nightgown three times on October 31st and hanging it in front of the hearth so your future husband will, uh, break into your home and declare his love? I don't know! I'm just a witch!
So what the heck am I actually trying to talk about here? Well I’ll tell ya! I don't really know! It's not my place to tell you how to feel or celebrate. But I do want to give you permission, if you’re looking for it, to celebrate Halloween, Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve in your full-on witchy power whether you celebrate the other holidays or not. Even if you don’t even call yourself a witch any other day of the year. Yes, you, reading this right now. Also, you look really nice today! Here are some ideas:
-Dress up as the most outrageous, wildest dreams version of yourself you can think of. Not just "I'm usually covered-up so I'm gonna get my boobs out" dream-self (although hey, that's cool too!), but the "I've always wanted to wear xyz and do xyz and tonight I'm gonna test it out" dream-self. Let yourself live as that self for a night, and in the morning ask yourself if that was really so unrealistic? Halloween is a great cover for living your most secret fantasy.
-Make a meal for your passed-on loved ones and invite friends and family to tell stories about them. If you know their favorite foods, drinks, if they had a special china set that you never use, pull out all the stops and make sure you set a plate for them.
-Make a plan with your neighbors to get all your post-Halloween pumpkins to a compost pile!
-Sign up for our newsletter and help us cast a protection spell on our outdoor feline friends.
-Winter risks are real: for unhoused neighbors and transient folks, the weather poses fresh challenges. If you're like me and you don't necessarily have to worry about surviving the winter like your ancestors did, it's time to heal some ancestral trauma and give back. Organize a coat drive, check out mutual aid groups like Solidarity North Shore who have an ongoing list of needed items (which you can even drop off at the HausWitch store). If you can, honor this liminal holiday by stocking up on life-saving equipment that exists in liminal space, like Plan C pills and Narcan (lots of mutual aid orgs like The Sidewalk Project organize Narcan training, and there have been some very exciting recent developments in the accessibility of medication abortion).
-Dive into the Akashic Records with one of our favorite witches, Zhana Levitsky
How are we out there? Still with me? I know the "brief history" in this article was particularly brief but it's Scorpio season and my Scorpio Moon and I are feeling feisty and contemplative. What are you questioning these days? How do you feel about Halloween/Samhain? Let us know! And as always, if you have questions for Ask A Witch submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org! Happy Halloween, witches. Fly your broom across the moon.
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