Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween and Pagans

Yet again, people with good intentions are out on the walking mall trying to save the souls of Halloween celebrants. And once again I have to laugh.

Because Wiccans don't celebrate Halloween.

Wiccans and pagans in the Celtic tradition celebrate Samhain (most commonly pronounced Sow (ow as in ouch) - inn). This ancient holiday is considered New Year's Eve on their wheel of the year.

It is also considered a time when the veil between this world and the next, the Otherworld, is thinnest, so spirits of the departed can cross over and come home. You're not going to be traipsing around the neighborhood when you're expecting company. You eat a silent, reverent meal, thinking of the departed, and leave goodies - foods they liked - outside for them.

Enter the Christian era.

Samhain (which is properly November 1st, but the Celts counted their days as beginning the night before, so November 1st actually starts the night of October 31st) shares its holiday with All Saints' Day.

Just like it sounds, All Saints' Day is a feast day to remember saints and martyrs. These are "hallowed" (blessed) people. So this feast day was also called All Hallows' Day. The night before it would then logically be All Hallows' Eve, eventually to become Halloween.

I have heard it said that people came to believe because All Hallows' Day was a saintly day, the angry/jealous forces of darkness walked abroad the night before - which is how Halloween got its spooky/dangerous vibe.

In any case, over time, an evening that had been about welcoming your dearly departed became an evening to be feared.

In the modern age, this mostly took the form of children playing "tricks." A night of vandalism that you could blame on the forces of evil.

The Turner Classic Movies TV channel periodically runs a short, black & white film about Halloween customs that was made in like the 1950s, and it attributes the "trick or treat"-begging-for-candy-around-the-neighborhood tradition to a deliberate movement in small towns. The town leaders wanted to organize children into doing something positive (or at least parentally-accompanied) on Halloween rather than being purely destructive - a movement which caught on across the country. Whether you believe that old film or not, Halloween today is generally celebrated as a sugar-feast day where children collect all the candy they can.

Unless you live in Salem, Massachusetts.

In Salem, Halloween is much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Only without the beads. And it lasts for a month.

You'll find adults wearing costumes more often than children. And all month long, not just on Halloween.

There are street musicians, street dancers, street vendors...the air smells of grilled sausages and fried dough and roasted peanuts.

You can get kitschy witch stuff or you can meet actual, self-proclaimed witches.

You can also visit the Memorial to the victims of the Salem Witch Trials - who are probably spinning in their graves (if we knew where their graves were) about all this. Sometimes we forget that these people were so NOT witches that they would not say they were even to save their lives.

But let's return to the street party.

On Halloween itself, people of all ages in all sorts of costumes join the scrum that is downtown. 100,000 people are generally expected, especially when Halloween lands on a Saturday. Add that to the 40,000 townies and you can barely move on the sidewalk.

Yet a jovial, friendly atmosphere is maintained. Everyone smiles at each other. Strangers compliment other strangers' costumes. For that large a number of people, it's very Woodstock. Peace and love.

The only sour note you will find are the few people - probably from miles and miles away - who come every year with bullhorns that scream and garishly large placards that proclaim how we are all going to Hell. Because we're downtown dressed in costumes for Halloween - and that must mean we're godless pagans and Wiccans.

I always laugh when I see them because what they don't understand is, in this veritable sea of humanity, there are NO PAGANS.

Nope. NO WICCANS. This group has come all the way out here to literally preach to the converted.

How do I know? Because for pagans and Wiccans, this is still Samhain. A serious holiday of reflection. Where one cooks for the dearly departed and stays home quietly and thinks about them.

They aren't the hedonistic partiers. It's the rest of us.


  1. This was a great little history--informative and interesting and fun at the same time!

  2. Thank you! Hope you enjoyed your Halloween. :)