A cemetery filled with candles and flowers for Day of the Dead covers a hillside as people gather at the grave sites of their loved ones in Janitzio, Mexico.
“This is the season of Halloween, the time when the veil is thin between the worlds, the seen and the unseen, the day-to-day and the mysteries…”
So says our Halloween litany. For Witches, for those who practice the renewal of the ancient, pre-Christian Goddess religions of Europe and the Middle East, Halloween is our most sacred holiday, our New Year. In Celtic Ireland, Wales and Scotland, Samhain, pronounced ‘sau-in’, was the time when the sheep and cattle were brought down from the summer fields, when the harvest was gathered in and the dark time of year began. The fruits of the harvest, the blessing of the year’s abundance, was shared with the ancestors in the form of offerings which have come down to us in modern times as the candy we give to children-who are the ancestors returning.
Harvest is a time of ending, but also a time of beginning, for the Goddess stands for the great regenerative powers of nature. Out of darkness, light will be born anew. Out of the time of cold and dormancy, new life will return. Death is part of a cycle that brings about rebirth.
In Mexico and Latin America, Halloween converged with indigenous traditions to give us Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Families visit the graves of their loved ones to clean them, offer marigolds and libations, and picnic. They set up altars in remembrance. Here in San Francisco, where immigrants are far from their family graves, we set out public altars in the park and hold a huge procession with dancing Calaveras-skulls and skeletons-and thousands of candles. People of all ethnic backgrounds love this tradition!
Today, Halloween, is probably our most celebrated popular holiday, combining as it does the pleasures of sugar, costumes, fantasy and remnants of magic. It’s the one night in the year when everyone is out in the street, meeting their neighbors, feeding the children, admiring the little ghosts and princesses and pirates.
While carving the pumpkin or hanging up the decorations, you might stop for a moment and reflect on Halloween’s deeper meaning. Whatever your religion or spiritual persuasion, even if the answer is “none at all,” take a moment to honor your ancestors, to think about their struggles, the gifts they have given us, the challenges they faced. And take another moment to think about the children and the generations to come. What world are we leaving for them?
Right now, our future may look dark and uncertain. The economy reels like a wavering top, the institutions we’ve trusted seem to be falling apart or are revealed to be riddled with corruption. The very climate is uncertain, and we can no longer feel sure whether the lives of our children and grandchildren will be better than ours, or far more bleak.
In times like these, it’s good to remember what Halloween teaches us: that death is part of the circle of life, that decay gives rise to fertile soil, that endings are followed by new beginnings. One wave must collapse for a new wave to form. Dried stalks fall so that later, green shoots will rise. Ossified ideas, brittle systems give way to new visions. The process may be messy, loud and scary-like any birth. Breathe into it. Release the fear,and trust in the great regenerative powers of nature. Form your own vision of the world you want to bring to birth, and let it gestate in the dark. Then labor to bring it into being. The ancestors will aid you: the generations to come will bless you.