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Every year people ask me what witches do on Halloween. It’s a natural curiosity born of the fact that witch decorations are plentiful and witches tend to gather on or around Oct. 31 to commune for some “secret” purpose. Although Wiccans enjoy the fun of Halloween, Halloween has nothing to do with the Wiccan feast of Samhain (pronounced SOW-in). Halloween is a secular holiday with links to folk practices. Samhain is a part of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year.
The Wiccan Wheel of the Year is divided into four major parts that correspond to the four natural seasons. Feasts that mark the beginning of each season are known as the Major Sabbats, of which Samhain is one.
Literally,Samhain means “summer’s end.” The Celts marked two seasons, winter and summer. Samhain coincides with the return of the livestock from the grazing fields. Weaker cattle were slaughtered and preserved as food for the long winter. In some areas, Samhain feasting went on for about one week and was accompanied by games and entertainment. Long before Samhain was associated with the dead, it was a pre-winter harvest festival to end all festivals until summer returned.
So, first of all, at Samhain Wiccans typically think a lot about all the animals and plants that feed us. We are keenly aware that for us to live, animals and plants must die. We also acknowledge that the growing season is over, and recall the times when people might not make it through the winter for want of food. And even today so many people cannot afford decent, regular meals. Autumn is a great time of year to donate to a food bank, work at a community kitchen, teach someone how to preserve foods, consider eating more vegetarian meals, or learn about sustainable growing methods.
Wiccan cosmology includes a god and goddess. In the autumn, the god sacrifices his life for the good of the people. Typically the sacrificed god is a grain god (think of good old John Barleycorn). But another god figure is symbolized by the wild stag, which dies so that the other animals can eat. While he is “dead” the god dwells in the Underworld. The Crone, the hag aspect of the Goddess, is in mourning for him; she rules without him until he is reborn at Yule. His rebirth as the sun promises a new agricultural cycle will begin.
At Samhain witches remember and reconnect with loved ones who have passed on. In this sense, the Wiccan Samhain is very much like the Days of the Dead. We set tables laid with the favorite foods and drinks of the departed and invite them to come. Pictures and stories of lost loved ones are shared. Most Wiccans believe in an afterlife and in reincarnation. And, although we trust that in the afterlife we will be with family, friends, and pets, and that we may choose to incarnate again, our knowledge is only partial consolation for missing someone in this life.
So, Samhain is mostly about death: the sacrifices of the god, the deaths of our loved ones, the loss of our friends and pets. And all this emphasis on death primes us to think about our own mortality. A Sufi belief states that if we “die before you die” we will not die when we die. Contemplating death helps you live life more fully. To live consciously, to fully embrace joy and life now, we must accept that we will die, but it would be a gross understatement to say that accepting death is simple.
Meditating on death should not become an obsession, but giving death its due is part of the season called the Dark Time. During the weeks between Samhain and the winter solstice, witches slow down and focus inward to consider their spiritual path, the activities of the year, and plan for the future, too. These weeks are a space out of time, a retreat.
Witches typically use divination at Samhain and in the Dark Time to gain insight, because we believe we can receive information and guidance in ways beyond our five dominant senses. Many Samhain rituals include a period in which we individually meditate and practice scrying, crystal gazing, reading tarot cards, or using whatever other divination method we prefer, to open our psychic vision.
On Nov. 2, Our Lady of the Woods will host a Samhain ritual that will feature a descent into the Underworld and a return to this world. The ritual will be held at 6 p.m. at the Unitarian Church. After this thoughtful ritual, we will embrace life fully with a fine potluck feast; bring a dish if possible. All are welcome, but it is highly recommend that because of the seriousness of the ritual young ones stay at home. This is the only time of year that there is such a solemn night. A schedule of events is available at www.ladywoods.org.