The very concept of Halloween dates back to the early Celtic peoples who held a harvest festival at what they deemed "summer's end" - hence the Gaelic word Samhain. This was the last harvest of the year, before the frost set in, and also the time of year when the veil between this world and the spirit world was at its thinnest. It was a time for honoring deceased loved ones and ancestors; and also warding off malevolent fairies and evil spirits.
Turnips (later pumpkins) were carved into lanterns to ward off bad spirits or guide loved ones home. Grotesque masks were donned after dark to confuse any wandering spirits so they would not recognize or attack the individual venturing out.
Samhain was a fire festival and great bonfires would be erected in order to drive out negative energies. Farmers would herd their cattle or sheep between these bonfires in order to bless them for the year to come.
In order to facilitate the conversion of pagans, the Church transformed the festival of Samhain into a feast for Saints and November 1st became All Saints Day. The night before, what we now think of as Halloween, was called All Hallow's Eve.
But Halloween never quite lost it's associations with the dead, ghosts, witches, and monsters...
Boil and Trouble
Halloween or Samhain?
Today Samhain is observed by many modern pagans and witches in a variety of ways, including erecting an altar to honor one's ancestors, engaging in various forms of divination, communicating with spirits, holding a dumb supper, and even rituals designated to certain deities associated with this time of year.
But can a pagan just celebrate Halloween, as it exists today?
Absolutely. Because Halloween is still based around all that good stuff the pagans of ye olden days believed in, indulging in the more secular version of the holiday is no sweat!
- Decorate your altar (and home) in modern decorations. This might include putting tiny fake headstones on your altar or tacking up vintage witch and ghost postcards. You can also use a Halloween fabric as your altar cloth.
- Keep some candy in one of your cauldrons - be it plastic or metal. This can be for trick-or-treaters or just your personal use.
- Hang up some framed photos of your ancestors or family members and then drape cobwebs or some spooky fabric around the frames for a haunted house look
- Spirit boards make for great wall art or coffee table decor, whether or not you actually us it.
- Indulge in a bunch of witch-themed Halloween movies with other pagan friends and critique them on their accuracy. :)
- Wear a witch hat. Be ironic.
- Mix up some fun cocktails and call them witch brews.
- If you hold a dumb supper, place plastic skeleton props in the empty chairs so your ancestors have something to "embody".
How Do I Celebrate?
To be honest, I start celebrating Halloween on October 1st, which is coincidentally my birthday. Usually I begin by decorating in a spooky fashion as much as I can - this involves fake cobwebs, fairy lights, creepy tablecloths, lots of funky knickknacks, and of course, dressing as witchy as I can.
I also enjoy visiting apple orchards and pumpkin patches. Carving pumpkins is a must for me and I also enjoy baking with pumpkin. This year I intend to make a homemade cider with pumpkin and apple - something to be imbibed during a Samhain ritual, perhaps.
There are also a variety of Halloween themed movies to enjoy, including:
- Hocus Pocus
- Sleepy Hollow
- Practical Magic
- Don't Look Under the Bed
- Trick Or Treat
- Addam's Family
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- Edward Scissorhands
- Young Frankenstein
- Shaun of the Dead
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Partying or Guising?
The Night Of....
Most of us are probably too old to to any actual trick or treating, so that tends to leave us with only a few options for celebrating Halloween - parties, bars, or just staying in. Lots of people host themed Halloween parties and many bars host a zombie pub crawl, but if you're the type who prefers a quiet evening, staying in with some movies or a creepy book might just be your ticket.
But depending on the party, you can still add you own pagan twist in attendance. Most of them require guests to come in costume, so if the standard witch ensemble is old-news to you, take a page from my book. You could come in the guise of a fairy or even a deity of your choosing. Last year, I chose to represent the Norse Goddess Hel and that allowed me to play with skull makeup and wigs. Going in costume as a god or goddess also allows you to explore more historical fashion as well - you could wear a green medieval style dress and a red wig to guise as Brigid or an Egyptian costume spiffied up to portray Osiris. The options are endless here.
If you plan to do a pub crawl, I do suggest a costume you don't mind spilling drinks on. Anything cheap you pick up at a costume shop would work well for this type of event.
However you choose to spend your evening, remember that the veil is thin and you might be partying with more than just your living, human friends. Be sure to include everyone present and have a great night!
Mel Carriere from San Diego California on November 01, 2015:
Halloween is always a fun holiday, regardless of our religious affiliation, and I really enjoyed your summary of the history behind it. Great hub.