The intersections of older spiritual practices and modern life are interesting and complex.
Halloween season is a bubbling brew of history, belief, contemporary attitudes and goofy good times. Within paganism, the world of Earth-centered spirituality, October is the season of the ancestors and contains our New Year on the 31st. Our cycle ends, and then begins, at the death of the growing season. Samhain (pronounced SOW-ehn) is the old Celtic name for this holiday and is the one we continue to use today.
The goofy, spooky fun of Halloween, with all its costumes and skeletons, rests atop a more somber and reflective holiday. As a whole, pagans believe the soul continues after death. We also honor the cycles of nature. The natural world is beginning its shift into the season of death and increasing darkness. We believe that as death appears around us, the veil between the living and the dead grows thin.
Samhain season includes building ancestral altars for both distant ancestors and more recent beloveds who have died. Altars can be simple or complex. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking out the old photos and putting them on the mantle where everyone can see them. Sometimes it’s a special table covered in pictures, decorations and objects we associate with our lineage. We make our loved ones’ favorite dishes for family meals. We visit cemeteries to clean off the graves and decorate them anew. And most importantly, we have a space for grief, for allowing the aching places inside us to breathe. A space to speak the words aloud: “I miss you,” and to know that they are heard.
Samhain night, Oct. 31, sees ceremonies honoring those who have gone before. Some traditions do a Recitation of the Dead, a calling of names. Others create a Dumb Feast, a table laid out of doors, beautifully decorated for the season and bearing the dishes our lost loved ones and ancestors most enjoyed. We invite the spirits to eat, drink and be merry, in their own way, when they visit. We gather in our communities to speak about those we wish to honor. We talk to our families, to our friends who have gone beyond. We pour out libations. We cry. We laugh. We tell the old stories and sing the old songs. And every year, that aching place inside us that is grief has a moment to be soothed. A moment between one year and the next, between the worlds of time and place, when we come to stillness and communion.
It is that stillness, that inner quiet, that we carry with us into winter. For pagans, the dark season is a time to go within and do deeper, more personal work on ourselves. It’s easy to get distracted in the warm months — there’s so much to do! Events, visits, vacations … When the light begins to fade, though, a different kind of work can begin. What did you lose this year? What quiet places inside you are aching from neglect? We expend so much energy on the needs of others. Have you remembered to tend your own flame?
Cycles occur in more than the world around us. It’s so easy to forget, with all our technology, all our bread and circuses, that we are a part of nature, not separate from it. And like the trees and animals, we need time to rest and nurture ourselves for the next growing season. We, too, grow weary after a long summer. We tire and fade and need to go into darkness for a time. We renew there, heal the wounds and tend the fire within.
Honoring the energy of the dark season can be as simple as finding a little space in your morning to set an intention for your day, to choose stillness for just a moment. It could be turning off your screens a little earlier in the evening to allow for some quiet time from distraction and discussion. You could start journaling. Or maybe it’s time to read that book you’ve been meaning to pick up. The season of death is also the season of renewal.
Samhain speaks to the spark within the darkness: the loved ones who exist beyond death, the light within us that shines on the darkest of days, the comfort of a warm hearth on a cold night. This is the gift, and the lesson, of this season. May this October see you blessed with space, peace, stillness and the love of your ancestors.
Irene Glasse is president of the Frederick Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, offering events, rituals, classes and workshops to a large, vibrant community, including Frederick’s Pagan Pride Day. She is a pagan religious professional and serves communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic region as a minister, teacher, musician and community organizer.