October 31 sits just about halfway between the Autumnal Equinox in September and the Winter Solstice in December, making it a “cross-quarter day” in the Wheel of the Year. It has long been the date of the ancient festival of Samhain, which is a Celtic word (pronounced SAW-win), celebrating the end of the harvest and the beginning of the dark half of the year. A day that humans first begin to feel the grip of the growing cold and darkness, in the ancient Gaelic tradition, it’s a “liminal” day, where the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead, or our world and the underworld, is thin. Catholics created All Saints Day on November 1, and combined it with the October 31 festival, which they called All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween. The Mexican celebration Dia de los Muertos, or the “Day of the Dead,” also occurs at this time of year, and honors departed loved ones and seeks to support their spiritual journeys.In some traditions, nature goddesses descend on this day to the underworld, not to return again until Spring.
If guising in on your agenda, you might be asking yourself–what you should be for Samhain? Here are some ideas that honor the spiritual richness of today:
- You could be a cat. In Ireland, there is a “cave of cats” from which otherworldly beings are believed to emerge, especially when the veil is thin. If you’re a cat, be sure to be a magical cat from the underworld.
- Those otherworldly beings are called the Aos Si. In some tellings, they’re the old spirits of winter who demand reward in exchange for good fortune. In fact, the costume tradition may have evolved from a practice of impersonating the Aos Si, going around to your neighbors to negotiate tricks and treats. Pranksters abroad often carried lanterns made of hollowed-out turnips with carved-out scary faces. The lanterns may have represented the Aos Si, or may have warded them off. So whether you’re a ghost or a ghost-hunter, be sure to carry a jack-0-lantern.
- Those otherworldly beings are also called Faeries, or “the good neighbors,” “the fair folk,” or even just “the folk,” or “people of the mounds,” because that’s where they come from, places like that cat cave. So being a fairy would be entirely appropriate, a sprite, nymph or goblin, or even a nature goddess descended to the underworld.
- The faery mounds are also called the sidhe, and the faeries called the Aes Sidhe. The similar ancient Sanskrit word Siddha refers to an enlightened person who has attained a higher spiritual state of being, divested of worldly things. You could be a priest, then, a shaman or a sage, or even a disembodied spirit.
- It’s also the Day of the Dead, so dress as a departed loved one, which could include Bowie!
- At the seasonal transition where plants die and animal life decreases, it makes perfect sense to flirt with the dead, or undead. You could be a zombie, a vampire or a mummy, something cold and bloodthirsty!
- When the weather turns, divination is always popular, and there are many Samhain rituals intended to divine futures. You could be a magician or a fortune-teller, tossing apple peels over your shoulder and communing with the Aos Si via your crystal ball.
- Father Christmas. Really? In the Pagan tradition, the god of this day is the Holly King, who will reach his peak at Yule, and then fall immediately to the Oak King, who will preside over the gradual return of light. The Holly King is a lot like the Ghost of Christmas Present, who only has until Yule before his time is up. Give him a night out and some candy!
- The goddess at Samhain is the Crone, an old hag who stirs a cauldron of souls. This highly spiritual day is also the Witches’ New Year, and witches dress in white, not black, in honor of turning inward, slipping below the physical to the place of purity and rebirth.
Whatever you are, the ritual of greeting darkness, of contemplating death, is a rejuvenating opportunity. The cold and dark are invitations to deepness, a unique chance to enter the void of renewal, both beautiful and frightening. Will you brave the boundary? Or maybe just bake an apple, stroll about with your jack-o-lantern, bless the quest of the departed, resist pranks, and reward juvenile seekers with candy. As for me, I’ll honor Cailleach, that divine hag of winter, by putting on a tall hat, just like last year, and tightening my apron strings. I’ll light candles and make fire-cider to protect myself and others from from environmental stress, bake cookies, and be sure the apples and jam are easy to find when warm spaces are small and light scarce. But what about you? What will you be for Samhain?