October 31st for most people marks Halloween, with glowing pumpkins, scary costumes and lots and lots of candy. However, less people know that it is also Samhain (saow-in) the first day of the darker part of the year — when the tilt of the planet in makes the nights longer than days in the Northern Hemisphere (interesting fact: people in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate Beltaine/Beltane on this day instead, making the start of lighter days!). It is also the Celtic New Year, more easily understood when you know that Samhain translates to Summer’s End, since the belief was there were two seasons — summer (from Beltane to Samhain) and winter (from Samhain to Beltaine). While many people only celebrate the fun, scary parts, there are still many people who also celebrate the change in the seasons, and even take the time to try to connect with or pay respect to the dead — or any combination of the above, which actually blend quite nicely. Showing my son, with a ball and flashlight the axial tilt really helps him understand what changes the planet is undergoing, so help him understand what exactly we’re talking about.
One of the Pagan or Wiccan Sabbats, or greater eight festivals of the year, this celebration is one that can be solemn or lively (or both!), but almost always revolves around the recognition of the dark, and paying respect to lost loved ones — a balance from the opposite side of the year’s Beltaine celebration, which is about light, life and fertility. As such, it’s no surprise that the modern celebrations involving spirits, dressing up as ghosts, and going out at night are easily embraced as celebrations of Samhain as well, if even as a lighthearted version of the traditional meanings. Many believe that leaving a door open with candles lit within can invite the spirits of loved ones to your door, where many would set out a meal to share with them. Or, you know, open your door to kids dressed like ghosts and hand them candy treats instead. As a Pagan family, we make sure that we focus on both aspects — not only enjoying the modern costumed, candy-seeking fun, but also taking the time to think about my grandfather who passed before I was born, or my husband’s mother who died too young.
Jack o’ lanterns were traditionally gourds, carried as a lantern or placed outside a home, not only lit the way, but the scary faces were said to scare away evil spirits, since it was believed that Samhain especially was a day of increased spiritual activity, especially with spirits of those who have passed. Today, of course, many people do them for fun, and carve many things, fun, scary or just plan silly. I’m preferential to witches, as my image here shows, but it’s neat to know that this is yet another way I can celebrate in a modern and accepted way, but also know that it has older routes, which I explain to my children as well. I think it adds even more depth to the holiday and celebrations for them not only to know the modern celebrations, but the meanings and history behind them as well.
Of course, not all parts of the celebration are fun. Solemn and sometimes emotional ceremonies to pay respects to our even attempt to communicate with the dead are common as well, and not quite as mainstream, though certainly are a focus of Samhain in no small part for Pagan communities. I think it’s that aspect that still leads people to believe that Pagan celebrations are “evil” or “scary” when in fact, they’re meant to bring closure or comfort, and are done very respectfully. Children can easily be involved, and if something more solemn or sad is required, can be done once they’ve crashed after their immense sugar highs. My son is really only now old enough at seven to start being able to be involved in the more solemn aspects of the holiday, even though we have discussed it briefly in the past.
Overall, Samhain has many of the same practices on the surface as mainstream Halloween, and often for many of the same reasons, though history of Samhain is often a main focus and of course, is also based on the planet’s changes, rather than just being a random day of fun and spooky activities, as is common with traditional celebration of Halloween — knowing not only the modern but the past makes the holiday so much more filled out and special!