Think of the year as a wheel. Then divide that wheel at the Solstices and Equinoxes. Then divide it again between each of those days. That is the wheel of the year, and those eight holidays are the days when Wiccans mark the turning of the wheel. We call those days Sabbats, or the Sun Holidays. Samhain and Beltane are the two biggest deals in the Wiccan calendar. Many witches also observe the phases of the moons, or the Esbats. They’re important too, but I’m not going to talk about them right now. I’m going to talk about Samhain and why I am a bad witch.
Unlike the modern American holiday of Halloween, which mostly involves children on sugar highs and women dressing up in sexy costumes, Samhain is a fairly solemn holiday. Witches are big into cycles: the cycles of the moon, the cycles of the year. Energy moves inward and outward with the waxing and waning of the moon and the waxing and waning of the sun. Samhain happens on the waning end of the sun’s cycle. It’s the last of three harvest festivals, a time when we draw indoors as the weather cools, hunkering down for the coming winter. Things die this time of year. So we acknowledge death and honor its gifts: transformation and relief from pain.
We visit with the spirits of dead relatives and ancestors. We place photographs of them on our altars and honor them in our circles. Some of us do something called a dumb supper, where we set places for our loved ones at the table and eat in silence, thinking of them. We light jack-o-lanterns to help these spirits find their way back to us. (Fun fact: the ancient Celts carved their jack-o-lanterns out of turnips, because there were no pumpkins in Europe until explorers brought them back from the New World.)
Samhain isn’t the only holiday at the end of October that deals with these themes. You see them in the Catholic holidays of All Soul’s Day and All Saint’s Day and perhaps most famously in the Mexican holiday of Dias de los Muertos. And you see vestiges of these themes in the modern-day Halloween. Death is scary, so we dress up like things that scare us.
Witches are all supposed to love Samhain. It’s like the High Holy Day of Wicca. But I don’t love Samhain and I doubt I ever will. Then again, I also don’t wear a lot of black velvet or occult jewelry. When I need a ceremonial knife (which is rarely), I use a paring knife. I’ve sold or lent out most of my witchy-type books and the rest of them are collecting dust. In spite of my failings as an Orthodox Wiccan, my religious practice is still very important to me – so much so that I still travel across town to worship with a group of women who see the Divine in the same way that I do. My practice used to be more visible and formal. Now it’s more organic. I’ve internalized most of the things I learned over the years, and I don’t need to refer to books as much as I used to. I honor the Goddess in prayer and in gardening, I practice magic through herbcraft and the Tarot, but I rarely do public ritual anymore. And I’ve given up trying to love Samhain. As much as I love the changing colors and the golden light of October, November and the winter depression that follows loom large on the horizon.
I’ve done plenty to observe the holiday over the decades. I’ve done media interviews about the nature of Samhain, because October is really the only month that witches exist in the eyes of the media. I’ve cooked some pretty kick-ass stuffed pumpkins. I’ve attended more Samhain rituals than I can count. There were dumb suppers. There were altars to the ancestors. There were ceremonial cleansings. On one memorable occasion, there was a sugar pumpkin in each of the four corners carved with the zodiac sigils associated with the direction’s element. These rituals fascinated me in my early witch days. Now they offer me a very necessary measure of comfort and acceptance. They remind me that I’ve been in this dark place before and that I will come out of it again. But they will never lift me in the same way that those of other Sabbats do: rekindling light in the darkness of Yule, honoring Brigid’s flame in the waxing days of Imbolc, planting the seeds of new life at the Vernal Equinox, Ostara.