Which is it: Samhain or Halloween? Is there a difference?
I’ve always loved Halloween. But, as a witch, I love Samhain even more. Are they the same? Not at all. Are they different? Not completely.
It is true that both are celebrated on or around the same day, and both have roots in the ancient pagan end-of-harvest celebrations. But, Halloween is a secular folk holiday where adults and children engage in the realm of make-believe and fantasy through costumes, parties, or trick-or-treating. Samhain, on the other hand, has a religious focus for many pagans and marks the beginning of the spiritual new year.
But, to many witches, to try and separate Halloween and Samhain would probably feel the same, to many Christians, as attempting to separate Santa Claus from Christmas.
In the ancient Celtic world, Samhain marked the end of summer and the growing season. Any crops left in the field would be killed by frost; Death was in the air at this time! This led to the belief that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest, and contact and communication with the spirits at this time was possible.
It was not such a far leap to wonder, then, — What, or who, was lurking in the shadows?
As a young girl, I loved Halloween. None of us wore purchased costumes; it was up to us (with only minimal parental involvement) to come up with our own disguises, usually out of the dress-up box, — we were gypsies or old men or old ladies or hobos, sometimes with makeup but always with at least a half-mask over our eyes. Yes, that was the idea! To change your look enough that your neighbors would not recognize you and your friends as you went door to door searching for treats. No candy at this house? Throw corn against the windows and run away before the porch light came on and you were seen! No one at home at this house? Soap the windows! Next year, they’ll remember to be home to pass out candy.
I remember walking along darkened streets (the ‘rule’ was, you had to wait until dark before going out) in a gang of children (no adults for trick-or-treating — they had to stay home to pass out the candy), going only as far across town as promised, and only to houses with the porch light on (the gang of children always did have a few secrets to keep on this score). Some years, it was bitter cold or raining, — so careful planning was required when selecting a suitable costume. Some years, and it was usually the year you chose to wear the old rubber full-face clown mask from the bottom of the dress-up box, it was unseasonably warm and the sweat stung your eyes and made it difficult to see. Some years, you remembered to bring along a flashlight, but more often you tried your best not to trip on uneven sidewalks or over the root of an old tree, while running to keep up with the older kids at the front of the gang.
I remember walking through piles of crisp leaves, hiding behind bushes until the porch light went out from the house we had just “corned”, running past the old graveyard behind the church and dumping out my pillowcase full of treats when I returned home to see what I was given. Those were great memories, of course. But, what I remember FEELING was something in the air, — something that sometimes made the hair on my arms stand up, something that made the whole gang of us take off running, for no particular reason and without comment. This was something that sat in the shadow under the Yandrick’s tree, or behind the hedges across the road from the school path, — that was never there if you looked. This was something that was so quiet that it felt like it was taking noise right out of the air!
As a young girl, this was my Halloween. Do I miss it? Not at all. Because now I know it as Samhain. The veil between the worlds is thin and the spirits and souls of my loved ones are welcomed home. I honor them and this time, where past and present come together to mark the occasion of what is yet to come.
I wish you blessings.