We’re a few days from the old Celtic harvest festival at summer’s end. For those of us the northeastern U.S., with the recent frosts and snow in the forecast, it feels like summer’s end as well. As a time of endings and beginnings — the new year begins as the old one ends — it is a time of introspection, intuition, dream and creativity. As an acknowledgment of change and completion, it can also include a remembrance of the dead.
The holiday was adopted by the Church and transmuted to a three-day observance from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. It begins the night before, on All Hallows Eve*, or Hallowed Evening (Halloween), continues with All Saints Day, and concludes on All Souls Day. In many other cultures there are similar observances, though not necessarily all on the same dates. Spanish speakers celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, and Christian Arabs observe Yom El Maouta, both meaning “Day of the Dead.” The Japanese observe O-Bon, remembering and honoring their ancestors. Held during July or August, depending on location and local tradition, the holiday feels to me (I lived in Japan for two years) like a cross between Halloween and the Fourth of July. Originating as a Buddhist observance, it also includes a dance — the bon-odori — to give thanks for the sacrifices of ancestors, fireworks, carnivals and a concluding Lantern festival, imaging the return of the souls of the dead. This Asian holiday captures the Druid spirit of Samhain for me: celebratory yet reverent, and family-oriented.
Druids and other Pagans have adopted the older Celtic name of Samhain or Samhuinn (pronounced approximately SAH-wen or SOW-en — the “mh” in Irish spelling indicates a sound like “w”) — as they have other Celtic names, since for them the holiday has association and symbols different from those current in the Church. The “sam-” is cognate with English “summer” — the word means simply “summer’s end.” (Christian anti-Pagan propaganda tracts like this one ignorantly and wrongly portray Halloween as “The Devil’s Night” and “Saman” as an evil “Lord of Death” — scroll down to the 15th frame. No evidence exists for a Celtic deity with that name and association. Besides, American commercialization of the day has obscured the invitation of its spiritual potential, though it remains still at hand. Somehow Americans also seem to have trouble achieving both “mirth and reverence,” as the “Charge of the Goddess” in the Wiccan tradition exhorts us.)
At the school where I’ve taught for a decade and a half, students themselves often took the initiative to celebrate this autumn holiday. Some two months into the school year, with exams looming and — for the seniors — college apps drawing more and more of their attention, they still found a supervising adult so they could get official permission and use school meeting areas, put up posters to invite everyone who wished to attend, and write their own rituals. I’ve saved several years’ worth of photocopied ceremonies in wildly varying degrees of elaboration, and I’ve attended both large and small gatherings, indoors and out. Some were largely excuses, it’s true, to dress up in capes and masks, light candles, scare and amuse each other, and then gorge on candy afterward. But others were moving commemorations of the season, an opportunity for acknowledgment from everyone who’d lost a relative or friend in the past year. The event helped acknowledge grief and cleanse the emotions through a group ritual of shouting and crying, burning messages in a cauldron, and closing with a group meditation. If the larger culture doesn’t make room for such things, subcultures often do.
The autumn equinox last month was the first time I celebrated that holiday as a Druid, and with fellow Druids, at the East Coast Gathering. In my part of the U.S., Druids are thin on the ground, though a couple of us are considering a small gathering. But whether or not in the end we manage to find time for a group celebration, I’ll also observe the day myself, this marker of moving in time and experiencing the fullness of human life.
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*”All Hallows Eve” precedes the day dedicated to the hallows or saints (Old English halga) — All Saints Day.
Dance image link
Lantern image link