At Samhain, Halloween’s deeper promise

Mario Armas AP A cemetery filled with candles and flowers for Day of the Dead covers a hillside as people … Continued

Mario Armas


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.

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  • paulhume

    Yo, headline writer – it’s Samhain, not Samheim.

  • ccnl1

    Mocking Starhawk, Wicca and Paganism?

    Spells, curses, covens, black magic, witches, voodooing dolls, hoodooing the results, shadow books, maypoles, horned god(s) and triple goddess(es), Gerald Gardner et al??


  • WmarkW

    Halloween is one of those formerly religious holidays that has turned into an opportunity to have a party (like St. Patrick’s, St. Valentines and New Year).

    We celebrate them that way because the quality of our lives has risen to the point that we no longer need a supernatural realm to validate our existence. As part of the deal, we dress as witches and ghosts, mocking the beliefs of the people of a more ignorant time who took such beings seriously. Fortunately, the people who still call themselves witches haven’t started an organized effort to killjoy our fun.

  • aswnylaw

    Pre-Christian goddess? Hardly. Christ existed before the world began, and the Old Testament (which predates these silly superstitions) points to Him.

  • ccnl1

    “John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident (the randomness) of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

    The Situation Today
    Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed. “ J. Somerville

    It is very disturbing that religious narrow- mindedness, intolerance, violence and hatred continues unabated due to randomness of birth. Maybe, just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions.


    Paganism is just as bogus as any other religion.

    It’s particularly stupid in that it bases its theology on completely ersatz and discredited Anglocentric anthroplogy.


    Religion is designed to be the vehicle for narrow-mindness and bigotry.

    It’s like criticizing a hammer because it’s good for pounding in nails.


    You’re the killjoy.

    Halloween is for getting scared. Getting scared is fun.

  • nocreamcorn

    I think you missed the point of WmarkW’s statement. You clearly don’t know the history of Halloween or Paganism. Your comments are based on personal belief and not fact.

  • melbaker1

    For many of us who have chosen Wicca as our religion it provides a powerful connection with the spiritual which doesn’t do violence to our connection with the physical world and our natural selves. The Spiral Dance ceremony in San Francisco – lead in part by Starhawk this weekend – was as it has been for 32 years a deeply moving mix of liturgy, music and participatory ritual with one thousand of my neighbors. It is certainly true that our ancient Pagan ancestors wouldn’t recognize much of what our modern re-interpretation of Paganism looks like, but that lack of historical details frees us to re-imagine religious practices that honors women and men equally while seeing us as both creatures of the Earth and eternal beings moving through time with our ancestors and those yet to be born.

  • Robynmarigny

    Celebrate the turning of way we see colors.

  • Robynmarigny

    Sweetie – what does the term B.C. mean?
    And why do you have to defend your god so fiercely?
    My goddess needs no defense. She is.

  • melbaker1

    Ah yes, Christ existed before all those silly superstitions. Except of course for anyone who actually studies history and finds much of Christian iconography lifted completely from Greek Paganism, Egyptian mythology and Roman Mithrasism.


    Re-imagine THIS, hippy.