The ancient Celts regarded October 31, or Samhain (pronounced sow-when), as the beginning of the New Year. Now, why would this be so when days are still getting shorter, and the dark part of the year has not yet ended? The most likely reason is because this time of year had so much to do with death, and after death, there must always be rebirth.
Samhain was the final harvest of the year—the meat harvest. The fields and plants had already been cleared and stored, and most families could only afford to keep a few animals fed and warm throughout the winter. So the slaughtering began. A bloody time, to be sure, but it was also a time of abundance and celebration, as the families feasted on the food that was not salted, smoked, or stored away.
Because of these traditions, Samhain was also a time to reflect on the transience of life. It would be difficult not to think of death as you watched or took part in the slaughtering of the herds. It would also be difficult not to think about how life depends upon death, as the cut crops and butchered meat were fed to the families through the cold winters. This heightened awareness of life's cyclical nature brought with it a reverence for ancestors of all kinds. We can maintain that reverence now by thinking of our ancestors at Samhain—the ancestor plants and animals that feed our bodies, and our human ancestors, who feed our souls.
Many individuals today practice vegetarianism in an effort to reduce the killing of other creatures. This is a noble ideal to be sure, especially considering the way in which so many animals are treated in modern systems of farming. If you are a vegetarian, you may find the idea of a meat harvest distasteful or even irrelevant to your personal practice. However, we all must remember that all life depends upon the taking of other lives, be they plant or animal. Whether you're an herbivore or omnivore, take time at Samhain to be reverent of the plants and animals that sustain you.
Associating this time of year with death is not merely a Celtic phenomenon. Nearly all cultures in the Northern Hemisphere do the same, as it is difficult to witness the waning days and not reflect on such things. Catholics celebrate All Soul's Day, and El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated in Mexico. Both days are opportunities for the community to come together in order to remember and celebrate the dead.
"Celebration" is not a word we often associate with death, but death, and the dying time of year, need not be depressingly morbid. Take the Day of the Dead as an example, where communities gather in graveyards to honor their ancestors and partake in a feast of color and light. Children play in the graveyard at night, and candies and toys abound in the shapes of skeletons and skulls.
While this may seem strange to many Americans, who typically do all they can to protect their children from the specter of death (take the all-too-common explanation that "the dog went to go live on a farm" as a point of reference), it really makes a lot of sense. Death is a universal experience; it is one of the very few things that happens to each and every one of us. When you think about how you'd like to be honored after you're gone, wouldn't you prefer some company and a big party to tears and avoidance?
Oddly enough, although we find the mixture of children, death, and fun an incredibly odd one, that's exactly what our modern Halloween is all about. Children (and sometimes adults) dress up in the image of ghosts and ghouls, run around scaring each other "to death," and then laugh about it and feast on candy. It is in our nature "play with death" in such a way.
To recapture some of that childhood wonder, try a simple candle ritual from By Candlelight: Rites for Celebration, Blessing & Prayer by Janina Renée.
Light a candle in a shape, color, or scent (or all three) that fits the season (suggestions include ghosts, skulls, and pumpkins for shape; orange, purple, and black for color; and spicy scents like sandalwood, cedar, cypress, frankincense, myrrh, clove, or patchouli). As you light it, say:
I light this candle
in honor of All Hallows nights,
a time when the human world
can touch the world of magic.
So at this time,
may we also find wonder
in the mysteries of the universe,
even as we rediscover
the enchantments of childhood.
So may our lives be
filled with magic:
magic in our homes,
and magic in our hearts.
You may also want to write out some resolutions (it's Pagan New Year after all), and burn them in the candle flame. You can even put the candle in a jack-o-lantern when you are through. To set the mood, burn some copal incense (it's a dark and sticky resin that you can find at many occult shops), as it is traditionally used in Day of the Dead celebrations.
Food for the Dead
To celebrate the dead in a way that everyone can enjoy, try this recipe for All Souls' Day Bread from Silver RavenWolf's Halloween: Customs, Recipes & Spells:
4 yeast cakes
2 cups milk
8 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
8 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
1 tsp. grated orange peel
1 tsp. grated lemon peel
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp. poppy seeds
Instructions: Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup milk, and add 1 cup of flour. Sprinkle a little flour on top and let rise until size doubles. Add salt and egg yolks, beat until thick. Add sugar and peels and mix with other ingredients. Add 2 cups flour and remaining milk, alternating each so that the mixture doesn't get too dry or too wet. Knead for five to ten minutes, saying: "Blessings upon the living. Prayers for the dead." Hum if you like, or simply chant. Add the remaining flour and butter, and knead until dough comes away from hands. Set dough in a warm place, covered with a warm, damp cloth, until it rises to double in bulk. Separate into four parts, braid. Brush top with beaten egg yolks and sprinkle with poppy seed. Let rise. Bake at 250 degrees for one hour.
When the bread is finished, be sure to leave a small portion outside for the faeries, and a portion at the cemetery or on your altar for the dead or your ancestors. Before eating it yourself, say a blessing for the plants and animals that provided this food for you. Get the Pagan New Year off to the right start by remembering all those who have passed before you, and all that has sacrificed itself to sustain your life. And remember to have fun while you're doing it!