“October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron….” — J.K. Rowling
We have passed through the Hallowed Nights of Feast, Fire, and Fallen Kin. We have danced Dionysian unto Summer’s Ending, as if our gyration would reverse that of the Dying Sun. Now, before Winter’s Gates we stand sobered and all too aware of the gnawing Darkness ahead.
I began the season by decorating my house in Halloween paraphernalia, getting a head start in the first few days of October. Over the next few weeks my house had been steadily transformed by cobwebs, spiders, skulls, and the occasional jack-o-lantern. On the Saturday before Halloween my partner and I threw a costume party. As secular as it may seem, I take great enjoyment in surrounding myself with the symbols of Halloween- from plastic skeletons and jack-o-lanterns. I experience arachnophobia and so creating a spider’s nest draping over a lamp and table around Halloween allows me to immerse myself in what I fear without overloading my psyche. This almost ritualistic practice every year has helped me become more comfortable with living spiders in my own way. Secular Halloween allows for the indulgence in taboo, modes of behavior that are suppressed for one reason or another throughout the rest of the year. While Mardi Gras and similar festivals also loosen the social shackles, Halloween does so in a unique way.
Browse Halloween decorations and costumes and it should become apparent to anyone who has an eye for symbolism. What is represented in most secular expressions of Halloween? In my perception it boils down to Fear, Sex, Death, and Occultism. (HELLO, Scorpio!) Monsters, Skulls, Graves, Ghosts, “Sexy (fill in the blank)” costumes, Cross-dressing for both sexes, Phobias, Murder, Gore, Insanity, Rot, Decay, Demons, Spirits, Witches, Magic, etc., etc. are all standards of Halloween paraphernalia and indicative of those categories I previously mentioned. Newspapers and Magazines try to interview Wiccans, Vodouisants, Satanists, and other occult and “spiritual fringe” people. It’s the one time of the year that it is socially acceptable to bend the rules and sometimes outright break them, or at least indulge your fascination in the taboo without being mistaken for a weirdo or an eccentric.
I always find myself musing on the history and symbolism of this time of year and all the cultures and traditions that have coalesced into the modern celebration of Halloween. I have come to understand that this holiday is simultaneously secular, Pagan, and Christian, as well as being inclusive. Each group has expressed Halloween differently, they all have been inspired and appropriated by each other. In my research of the “reason for the season” it has frequently been indiscernible as to what was “Pagan” and what was “Christian,” as well as from what particular culture certain aspects came from. One person’s Samhain tradition is another person’s Hallowmas observance, and let’s not even get started with Dia de los Muertos. While it is easy to say that the Church stole Pagan traditions in an effort to seduce new converts, it seems to me that there is the possibility that the people simply refused to give up their rituals and through subsequent generations the traditions remained, the meanings slightly altered. While I do not disregard the insidious domination and atrocities committed by the institution of the Church, I also think that the Folk are stubborn and creatures of habit. And what is a ritual but a habit saturated with meaning? What is a tradition but a set of rituals passed on?
My thoughts also tend toward the influence of Nature on our Ancestors. What is it about this time of year? What did it mean to our Ancestors in Europe thousands of years ago? What does Fear, Sex, Death, and Occultism really have in common with October 31st? I’m not surprised if it is hard to understand for many modern Western peoples because we have so much comfort and convenience. Even the least wealthy of us are more affluent than a large population of the world today, and most certainly richer than most people before us. We have a lot less to be afraid of in many regards. We are very sheltered and pampered compared to our Ancestors.
This is about a relationship, and a very tangible one at that. At this time our Ancestors were preparing to slaughter their livestock to be able to survive throughout the winter. Less mouths to feed and more to eat because of the lack of growing vegetation. Old and young alike were not spared from sickness and disease in winter, as well. The cold and dark is not merciful to warm-blooded creatures, especially those hunted and eaten by other warm-blooded creatures. While our Ancestors generally lived in survival mode for most of history, the time that is our modern Halloween became a gateway into the harshest session of survival mode. While we talk about the “Dark Half of the Wheel of the Year” at least a lot of us can turn on our electric lights and gas heaters. Our ancestors had to go to great lengths to acquire the necessary resources. They couldn’t always go to the market to get these things, they had to work and sacrifice to stay alive. We often take for granted how difficult it would be to survive without our structure and security.
Halloween is always saturated with thoughts of my Ancestors, those I knew and never have known. I try to honor all those who fought to survive and bonded with each other to continue to exist through time and space. The result of that love and strife is me, you, and all others here on Earth. Although I am a descendant of several European nations and have lived my life in the United States, I recognize that Ancestry and the ability to honor that influence is not bound by race, species, or cellular structure. I regard the Living Earth below me and the Stars above me as my Ancestors. Indeed, as per Nature’s design, all things decay and transform into new life- the Earth is literally our Ancestors. The matter of the Earth is created from the contents of a Star.
At Midnight on October 31st three friends, my partner and I took part in a simple ceremony and Dumb Supper to honor our Ancestors and our Beloved Dead, as well as the recognition of our own mortality. I had the pleasure of leading the ceremony in my temple/workshop room (i.e. the physical Curio Cabinet), marking the first official group ritual to be held there. We assembled in the temple, called to our respective families and loved ones, invited them to join our feast, gave offerings to them, and sat in silence for a while eating a simple meal. I had tried my hand at baking Soul Cakes, which turned out to be delicious. I ate mine contemplatively, as the tradition is that each cake eaten frees a soul from Purgatory. While I don’t believe in Purgatory, I do believe that what is remembered, lives.
Tomorrow, on Sunday, I complete my observance of this spoke on the Wheel by attending the Greek Orthodox Liturgy in honor of the 40th day of passing of my partner’s Yia Yia. I had the great pleasure of meeting this legendary woman a few times and it feels as though it was not enough. I greatly sympathize with the Orthodox tradition of the 40 day memorial. It brings the family together to celebrate the one who lived, helping to facilitate healing after grieving. The Orthodox prayers for the dead include the phrase “Αἰωνία ἡ μνήμη,” translated as “May your memory be Eternal.”
I hope your Halloween brought you joy and blessings. This is not the only time you can give thanks and love to Those Who Have Gone Before, it is just the most appropriate. You can always raise a glass in the names of the Beloved and Mighty. And I raise a glass to you, readers, for though we may be friends or strangers we are all bonded through the love and strife of our Ancestors.
May your memory be eternal. What is remembered, lives.