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From Samhain to Halloween: The Witch’s New Year

This article was originally published in the October issue of Moon Glow, which you can access here

October 31st marks Halloween, otherwise known as Samhain and the Third Harvest. Most people in America today celebrate Halloween as a secular holiday, with a nod to it’s ancient origins in ghost and ghoulish décor and dress. Samhain is the Celtic New Year originating in Ireland, marking the beginning of the dark half of the year or winter months. This is a time when the veil between our physical world and the spiritual world is thinnest, when ghosts and spirits and other spiritual beings come out to feast and to play. It was customary to light a candle and leave it in your window to help guide your ancestors and benevolent spirits home. People dressed as ghosts and wore scary masks in order to blend in with malevolent spirits and therefore pass the night unscathed. It was common to go to bed early, for even though ancestral spirits were generally benevolent, it was still best to not interact with them. An offering of food was left for the spirits, celebrated today as a Dumb Supper. It is a feast in silence with a portion left for the spirits to obtain their favor and avoid their wrath or bad luck. It’s been postulated that this is where the tradition of trick or treating came from, with children dressing up as ghosts and ghouls and going door to door for an offering of candy (or other foods before candy), and if you don’t have the offering, you receive a trick for the lack of treat!

There was much fear and magic associated with this celebration, as this day marks the descent of the sun into the underworld. Any boundaries or “in between” places were considered dangerous places where you could meet a ghost or the god of the dead. Bridges were avoided, as were graveyards and property boundaries. Boundaries and “in between” places are symbolic of the space between worlds- the spiritual and physical. This half of the year extends from October 31st through the entire winter season. Even the Winter Solstice and Christmas, with the celebrations we enjoy lightheartedly, have their roots in darkness. The sun is essential for life, and winter brings with it much uncertainty and the decay and death of vegetation. Winter fires for individual hearths were lit at this time from a communal fire. The fire in the hearth was never put out during the winter months.

Today, October 31st – November 1st is celebrated among many witches as the Witch’s New Year. We follow the Wheel of the Year and the cycles of nature, celebrating the natural rhythms of life and death. This is a potent day for magic and divination practices, such as tarot readings, oracle readings, runes, or any other form of divination to discover hidden truths and gain guidance. This is also a time where we set out an altar that honors our loved ones who have passed, with photos of them and other memorabilia. I like to leave an offering of a favorite food as well. For my grandpa on my mother’s side, I leave molasses cookies, which I associate very fondly with him. Observing the Feast of the Dead is as way to honor the spirits. It’s also traditional to share some food with the less fortunate, as the physical offering of food for the dead is not eaten by them (it is believed that they consume the spiritual nutrients of the food), but is rather a symbol of good will that should extend to the living.

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