Here are Graham's thoughts:
Halloween must be the most well-known, and notorious, of all the pagan festivals, and is depicted in modern culture as an American invention, preoccupied with fear, horror and celebrating evil.
The truth is, as always, rather more complex. It is a Celtic festival, one with ancient roots and a deep tradition behind it. Modern pagans celebrate it as Samhain, and for them it marks the end of the year. To explain some of the symbolism, I'm going to digress and explain the concept of the Triple Goddess. I've mentioned it in other festivals, but this seems like the right place to expand on it.
The Triple Goddess either represents three Goddesses, or more usually, three aspects or faces of the Goddess. Virgin, Mother and Crone are the three traditional names and refer to three stages of life. Starting with the Virgin, or Maiden, this is a young woman, full of promise and life. She is primarily concerned with enjoying life, dancing and courting. The next phase is Mother, where the joy and exuberance of youth settles into a more solid, deeper love and power. Finally, there is the Crone phase, the old woman who can no long bear children. She has a vital role in using her wisdom and experience to guide the Virgin and the Mother through life. A key point in mankind's evolution was when life expectancy increased to a point where there would be grandmothers. At this point, productivity increased because the grandmothers could look after the children while the mothers were farming. It also would have increased the store of knowledge that was passed down from one generation to the next.
As a further aside, there is a growing understanding that our modern culture is out of balance. It worships the Maiden, disregards the Mother and fears the Crone.
Over the Wheel of the Year, the Maiden is associated with Imbolc through to Beltane. After Beltane She becomes the Mother. And between Autumnal and Halloween, the Crone takes precedence, ruling through to the next Imbolc. This is why modern Halloween uses the symbol of the witch as an old woman with a cauldron, broomstick and cat. She is really the Crone, the village Wise Woman, skilled at herbalism and magic.
Halloween is a dark time of year. But that is not the same as evil. Nature could not continue with endless growth and ripening.
There has to be a period of rest, of drawing inward, of husbanding and rebuilding strength before the next growth. That is what Halloween marks, the beginning of winter, a cold withdrawal from the world. This is a time when energy will be stored up in seed kernels and animals will hibernate.
Another key feature of Halloween is that it is a time when the veils are thin. This means that our world and the world of faery, or spirits, are closer together at this time of year than at any other (except maybe Beltane). There are many myths about people being lured underground and tricked into visiting the faery realm at this time. On a (slightly) more practical note, this means it is a good time to practice divination. We tend to do a Tarot reading for the year ahead around this time.
Apples were really important at this time of year and a lot of the traditional games had a secondary purpose in divining the future. For example, it is said that if a young girl (Maiden) takes the peel off an apple in one piece and throws the peel over her shoulder, it will land in the shape of the initial of her future husband.
The whole practice of trick or treating probably comes from a much earlier practice. In Scotland, the adults would cross-dress and go around their friends' houses asking for a tot of whiskey. As I’ve noted when discussing other festivals, there appears to be a tradition of checking all the homes in a community at the festivals. This makes good practical sense, and also serves to bind people together. Trick-or-treating probably started with a group of people making a round of all the outlying farm-steads in a community. If they were given a treat, then the farm would be blessed. If not, it would be cursed for the following year.
As the veils are thin, it was important to dress up in disguise, or to cross-dress, so as to confuse any spirits or ghosts that might be about. Also, with its emphasis on death and darkness, this is a really good time of year to remember those who have passed over in the past year. This gives rise to another staple of commercial Halloween – the pumpkin. Originally it would've been a turnip or gourd lantern. Opinion is divided but it was either to welcome home the spirits of those recently departed or to ward off evil – maybe both.
This is also seen as the third and final of the harvest festivals. The feasting at this time would have involved the culling of the herds. This is where divination comes in as well. In a primitive farming community, there were now important decisions to be made.
Every animal over-wintered will need valuable fodder to survive. On the one hand, if you cull too many now, there may not be a breeding stock left in Spring. On the other, not culling enough could mean the herd runs out of fodder and isn't healthy enough to breed from. Aside from the feast, any meat left over would be smoked, salted and preserved.
This should be a prevailing attitude over this time, especially if you are working with an intent. Similar to spring cleaning, it should be a time of deciding which attitudes and ideas to keep and nuture over the winter and which have had their time.
For this reason, we tend to celebrate with good quality steak at this time of year, with something apple based for dessert. Colours are generally blacks, and indigo. If we use ribbons or altar cloths, then we use see-through indigo if we can find it, to represent the veils. Of the existing Halloween symbols, we choose witches (honouring the Crone), skulls, and skeletons. We try not to let it become too overly tacky or gory, but instead try to keep it recognising the dark side, respecting the Crone and acknowledging death. And of course, we carve pumpkins and take the children trick or treating.
Remember that without the darkness, there would be no light, without death, no life. This, rather than schlock horror motifs, is the true message of Halloween.
Here are Jan's thoughts:
Samhain means (from the Celtic) End of Summer. In a sense we have to move ourselves back in time here to properly understand what that means for Autumn as we now know it did not exist in the original Pagan calendar. We were either in Summer (bounty, blessedness and abundance) or Winter (threatening, sparse and demanding). When discussing the Autumnal last time, I spoke of how, at this end of the year, one is forced to squeeze every single drop of favour from the land.
Here our forefathers (and mothers) were faced with the stark reality that there is simply nothing left. There are no berries to forage, no crops to harvest. Even the wild life retreats making hunting harder and more dangerous. This is it. We are up against the violent beauty of Nature in all her guises. She has given up generously of all we have coaxed her into producing. Now it’s time for our testing – are we respectful enough? Careful enough? Thoughtful enough? The Winter will prove or destroy us. Either way, this is approaching the time of our weighing as souls. Here now, we face the highest judge of all. Are we to prove worthy? Or are we destined for a wasting death as a result of our own wastefulness?
I am quite sure you can see how our modern-day lives makes a total nonsense of such a stark set of choices. Perhaps the ease with which we refill our larders, restock our cupboards and fridges, has taken from us the simple reality that Nature truly IS red in tooth and claw. I often wonder what would happen if we were cast upon Her good nature and forgiveness. Hopefully we have not yet crossed the line into no-man’s-land. Um…could you please pick up that piece of litter and put it in the appropriate bin? I thank you.
The title of Hallowe’en aggravates me roughly as much as it aggravates Graham – you will have noticed his attitude in his fantastic offering about this ceremony. It is a shortening of “All Hallows Eve”. That is a Christian festival instituted officially back in 800AD or so. It precedes All Hallows Day which in Christian terms remembers and celebrates all saints. More obscurely in Christian tradition is the concept that it also celebrates the dead in general.
Now here we can see the Christian tendency to overlay pagan festivals with their own – in the early days this was a quite common practise, for in reforming areas it was not unusual for the community to celebrate the Christian rites in public (by going to church) and then acknowledge the pagan rites more quietly.
Because, on Samhain, the veils are thin between the worlds, it becomes much easier to reach for the echoes of souls gone before. This is not so much to say “Contact their ghosts” as it is to say “Touch their very essence.” The natural defensive barriers begin to collapse in on themselves on this night, even for the least receptive. At Samhain we can contact what many faiths call “the ancestors”. We can also call to mind those loved ones who have gone on before us, walking the path into the light. I do not see this so much as calling these souls back from their allotted journey in life and death (after all many of them may already have reincarnated) so much as I see it as a clear remembering, aided by the gods.
There are two aspects that our group observes here. The first is that of descending, once and for all, into Winter. Here, year on year we die, as does Nature. Here we surrender to the inevitable cycle of abundance and lack; of light, and darkness; of warmth and chill. Here we throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Lords and Ladies who move in shadows, those whose forms we can only barely perceive.
We make no reference here to the budding life which works in silence within the seed. We recognise that now, more than at any other time, we are exposed. Though all of us are ordinarily careful of our defences in life, from now on, we become extraordinarily watchful, aware of our vulnerability.
This cycle, which takes us from utter exposure through to triumphant victory through the year, is one which cycles around us at all times; it reminds us that we are not rulers of our environment, but rather servants to it. In some respects I feel sorry that we have lost this annual battle and victory dance. Whilst in many respects not relishing the loss of supermarkets (well, come on – I am human, which means I make uneasy compromises as a regular thing) I do believe we could all learn so much about our planet were we to be denied such convenience for a year.
Now the second aspect of our ceremony is about our personal time to contemplate and greet those who have gone on ahead. It is an interesting and somewhat painful truism that the list grows longer with each year we engage it. This year I must add to my personal list my mentor, the man I believed (unrealistically) to be immortal and indestructible. If I am sufficiently blessed, then I will feel the remarkable power of his gentle energy again for just a little while. And if I am thus blessed then everybody else will just have to wait for me – I will be with that wise and enfolding force just as long as I can.
I rarely emerge from Samhain without tears on my cheeks. It would be handy if I had a pocket in my robe for tissues….but when I made it I did not think that far ahead ;-). So I will hide a box under the altar.
If you want to observe the heart of Samhain, light a candle and spend some time watching its flame and thinking about those influential and dearly loved souls who have gone on before. We run away all too often from allowing our memories to rest gentle on our minds. There’s nothing wrong with having loved and lost. In fact, do we not owe our love the recognition of the grief it can sometimes bring us? I think we do.