Most of you know October 31 as Halloween. Some of you likely celebrate All Saints’ Day on November 1, and some of you probably celebrate (or are at least familiar with) Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that runs from October 31 to November 2.
You might be less familiar with Samhain (pronounced sow-en; sow rhymes with now), which is an ancient Celtic holiday honoring the dead still celebrated by Wiccans and many other Pagan groups, albeit in different ways than the Celts.
If you’re not familiar with it, Wicca is an earth-centered religion, and practitioners—called Wiccans and/or Witches—generally believe in and honor many different deities, which are usually considered aspects of an overarching Goddess and God. Wicca draws its practice from ancient Celtic, Germanic, Nordic, Roman and Greek practices, but is a modern construction and eclectic blend of old religions. Paganism is a blanket term used to describe many earth-based religions including modern Druidism, Celtic Reconstructionism, Nordic Reconstructionism, Wicca and many more.
“Earth-centered” means, more or less, that a religion is naturalistic, placing heavy emphasis and value on the natural world and the environment. Native American religious traditions, while markedly different from modern Pagan religions in many ways, are another example of earth-based or earth-centered spiritual practices.
Wiccans follow The Wheel of the Year, which corresponds to the equinoxes, solstices and cross quarter days. Samhain is a cross quarter day, as it falls between the fall equinox (around September 21 – 23) and winter solstice (around December 21-23). It is one of, if not the most, important holidays for Wiccans. In addition to being a time to honor family members, friends and pets who have passed away, Samhain is the final harvest holiday and marks the end—and therefore beginning—of a new cycle on the Wheel.
Most Wiccans believe in reincarnation and view death as simply another stage of life. This doesn’t mean that the loss of someone important isn’t sad, but in Wicca, death isn’t something to be feared or ignored. The Celts believed that the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest on Samhain, making it the ideal opportunity to commune with passed loved ones. Wiccans more or less believe the same.
Samhain is a holiday that recognizes shorter, colder days and the dominance of night and invites self-reflection and quiet meditation. As the final harvest before the long winter, it is a time to take stock of what’s grown (literally and metaphorically) over the past year and contemplate the coming year. Practitioners decide what, if anything, they want to leave behind or stop doing (such as a bad habit or negative energy), and what they want to actively cultivate moving forward.
This year has been marked by loss for me. With a full-time job, graduate classes, and other responsibilities, sometimes it’s hard to find that time for quiet contemplation. Whether or not you believe in magical practice, reincarnation or spirits, these long quiet nights are an ideal opportunity to reflect on the people you’ve had to say goodbye to and what you hope for the coming year.
I hope to work on being more present and mindful of what I’m doing, and spend more quality time with the people I care about. What about you? What accomplishment are you most proud of this year? What do you hope to do better next year?
Celebrate the Spirit of the Witches’ New YearExplore the Library's Collection of Books on Wicca
Kelly reads, writes and sometimes sews, always with a large mug of tea. Her job as the Clerical Specialist at CLP – West End gives her plenty of ideas for stories that find homes in obscure literary magazines.