A vintage Hallowe’en card from the 1930s
While I worship an Egyptian God and a Babylonian Goddess, my all-time favorite holiday is a Celtic festival: Samhain (“SOW-wynn,” Gaelic for “End of Summer”), which is the origin of the modern holiday, Halloween. This might create a bit of cognitive dissonance for some people, but despite my Welsh and Irish ancestry, I’ve never felt an emotional connection with any Cymric or Gaelic Deities. And despite my preference for North African and Mesopotamian Deities, the only holy times from those regions that I feel compelled to observe are Wep Ronpet and the Sabbath. These are both very important times for me, but Samhain is something else again. Wep Ronpet and the Sabbath are both tied to my faith in Seth-Typhon, but Samhain’s more of an ancestral thing for me; it’s not necessarily about any Deities in particular, but has more to do with celebrating animals and people who’ve passed on to the other side (especially those whom one counts as family).
I’ve already given a short history of Samhain in my film review of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), so I’m only going to discuss my personal thoughts and feelings about it today. I first learned about it from watching The Real Ghostbusters cartoon as a child in the 1980s. There were a few episodes which featured a villain named Samhain, the pumpkin-headed “spirit of Halloween.” Of course, the voice actors for this show pronounced the name phonetically (i.e., “Sam-HANE” instead of “SOW-wynn,” which is the correct Gaelic pronunciation). The character was also probably inspired by Charles Vallency’s famous mistaken reference to a Celtic “God of the dead” named Samhain. (I’m fairly certain the character’s appearance was based on the poster art for 1981’s Halloween II, as well.) This imaginary Deity has permeated a great deal of media, including more recent things like TV’s Supernatural (2005-Present). As I grew older, I eventually learned that there simply is no such figure in Celtic mythology. And believe it or not, I first learned the correct pronunciation of Samhain from watching Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982).
(To tell the truth, I was actually disappointed to learn that there was never any God of the dead named Samhain. I’ve always thought that idea was a pretty neat!)
According to some sources, Samhain is actually a three-day festival lasting from October 31 to November 2, which is probably why it was eventually Christianized into not one but three Catholic holidays: All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). I traditionally schedule vacation time from work on each of these days every year without fail. Unless we’re really in dire straits and there’s simply no other option, I prefer not to work during Samhain at all if I can help it. I think Pagans have a fundamental right to take time off for our various holy times if we want to, and I wish every Pagan family had the option of doing so.
In the month leading up to Samhain, my wife and I visit all the cemeteries in our area, and we’ll spend hours studying headstones and familiarizing ourselves with our community’s ancestors (even talking to them sometimes). It’s a fun way to explore some history, see some art and get some exercise all at the same time (and for free!). I also try to watch at least one classic horror film – preferably a black-and-white one from the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s – for each day in October. At the same time, my wife enjoys making and canning such things as applesauce and white bean soup. By the time November comes along, we have a entire truckload of delicious canned goodies stashed away in our kitchen pantry, and we like to give some of them to others as holiday gifts.
On All Hallows’ Eve, we begin the evening by handing out candy to the trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood. This will always be one of my favorite traditions, for I love seeing the kids in their costumes, having fun. (It’s also a unique bonding experience with some of the other adults in our neighborhood, who usually accompany their kids.) But after the trick-or-treating dies down, it’s time to dim the houselights, light some candles and begin our all-night vigil for our ancestors. My job for the evening is to stay up as late as I possibly can – preferably until 4 or 5 a.m., at least – to ensure that the ancestor candles stay lit all night long. Offerings of food and drink will also be offered, and I wait around all night to document any paranormal phenomena that might occur. And of course, the first Halloween and Halloween III are both required family viewing for the evening.
From the poster art for Halloween II (1981)
In my experience, the real Halloween magic happens at 2 or 3 a.m. on November 1. One year, my wife went to bed shortly after watching Halloween III with me, and I stayed up and watched Pumpkinhead (1988). The wind was howling outside, and the windows in our living room were open. Suddenly, around 3 a.m., I thought I heard someone talking in our front yard. I went outside to investigate, thinking it might be some young ne’er-do-wells playing a holiday prank. After looking around the premises for a brief spell, I concluded there was no one outside – and yet I continued hearing voices in the wind. I’m well aware, of course, that I could have just been “hearing things,” but I like to believe it was our grandparents paying us a little visit. You see, my wife and I purposely chose All Souls’ Day – the third and final day of Samhain – for our wedding. That was in 2012, and we also recited a special prayer to our grandparents during the wedding ceremony. We did this because we wanted their spirits to attend our wedding, and we could think of no better time for this to happen than Samhain, when the dead roam free. Since Samhain is also our anniversary, I believe our grandparents, our cat Sneakers and my mother-in-law all check in on us at this time to see how we’re doing.
Halloween was always my favorite holiday while I was growing up, and my conversion to Paganism can ultimately be traced back to when I first learned about Halloween’s polytheistic roots. Some people may think it’s strange that I celebrate a Celtic holiday despite worshiping Middle and Near Eastern Gods, but there’s no exact equivalent to Samhain in the Egyptian calendar. Even if there was, it wouldn’t occur at the same time of year. The Celts observed Samhain at the start of November because that’s when winter more or less begins in Great Britain and Ireland; down in Egypt, this time of year is more like the end of spring. But ancient polytheists were also far less anal about “mixing” things than some modern Pagans are. It wasn’t unusual for folks to honor other people’s Deities, especially if they were living in foreign countries. If it wasn’t a problem for them, why should it be a problem for me? Besides, I’m Welsh-Irish, which means I’m a Celt regardless of whom or what I worship. If Irish Catholics (who are also worshiping a Middle Eastern God) can still celebrate their own version of Samhain, certainly a Welsh-Irish Typhonian can too.
(I’m not saying you need to be an ethnic Celt to celebrate Samhain, but I certainly don’t need anyone else’s “permission” to celebrate it. Believe it or not, there are people out there who would beg to differ with me on this matter.)
Anyway, here’s hoping that everyone has a blessed and wonderful Samhain season this year (and this goes out to my Catholic friends as well as to my fellow Pagans). And please feel free to leave some comments on this post (or link to some posts of your own) about what you’re doing to celebrate this year! Gods bless you all!