Halloween, short for All Hallows Evening (–> Hallow-even’–> Hallowe’en) is best known as a festival for spirits, the night when the veil between the worlds of the living and dead are thinnest. Celtic pagans call it Samhain (pronounced ‘sah-win, ‘sow-in, or sown with the ow pronounced like the onomatopoeia), which means “summer’s end” in Old Irish. It marks the beginning of the “dark half” of the year when the natural world dies and the days grow short. To keep at bay the spirits who would emerge as vegetation shriveled and animals were going to slaughter, people would leave offerings outside their doors, light bonfires, and disguise themselves in the costumes of ghosts and goblins. These are the origins of our Halloween traditions.
Interestingly, many scholars believe that the “dark half” of the year preceded the “light half” in the old Celtic calendar, making Samhain the Celtic pagan New Year. This juxtaposition of death and new beginnings is incredibly powerful, not only as a symbol of the unending cycle of life and death, but also as a metaphor for personal reinvention and rebirth. One doesn’t need to be religious in order to appreciate the regenerative symbolism of traditional Samhain rites, such as walking between two bonfires — a ritual of purification — and throwing the bones of slaughtered livestock into a fire in an effort, I assume, to symbolically and literally cast away death. The latter reminds me, in a way, of the temple burning ritual held at burns across the world (Burning Man being the most famous). Throughout the festival, burners bring photos, letters, various objects reminding them of loved ones or precious or painful memories, and on the last night (or, at the Georgia burn Alchemy, the last sunrise), the temple goes up in flames. It’s a time of both communion with the past and of rebirth — not by burying the past, but releasing it. Likewise, Samhain offers a night to both honor the dead (be it loved ones or old regrets) and celebrate the promise of new life come morning.