In the Wiccan world, October is an auspicious time, rooted in antiquity. It’s the month that Wiccans celebrate Samhain (pronounced sow-en), an ancient tribal Celtic holiday, traditions from which gave rise to the present-day Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
“Summer’s End and fall festivals can be traced back at least to 4,000 B.C, ” said Lorien Carrillo, a Wiccan reverend and owner of Sacred Mists Shoppe in Napa. “The Celtic farmers and their fellow tribal Celtics in general lived their lives in accordance with the cycles of the seasons. It was a simple way of life with just two halves to a year. In the spring it was time to release your animals into the pasturesand in the fall you would call them back in.”
According to Carrillo, the Celtics also believed autumn was a season of convergence between life and death — the end of the warm and nurturing growing season and the beginning of the cold, dark and challenging winter filled with malevolent spirits.
“At this time of year, the Celtic spiritual leaders performed divinations to foretell the survival of the villages through the coming winter as well as to look ahead to next year’s harvests,” Carrillo said. “To ward off those malevolent spirits, the Celts held fire festivals that included dancing around a bonfire in costumes imitating those spirits.”
The Celts believed the costumes were protective camouflage that would confuse the feared entities and increase their odds of survival.
The Summer’s End celebrations eventually became the target of mainstream religions that viewed pagan beliefs as negative and wicked, Carillo noted. Some religions banned sacred pagan rituals and foods, such as pork. The leadership of Christianity, however, attempted to lure pagans to their religion by incorporating their holidays and rituals into Christianity.
“In the year 834 Pope Gregory III renamed All Hallow’s Day to All Saints’ Day and moved it from May to November 1,” Carillo said. The hope was this holiday reorganization would entice Celtics away from Samhain and encourage their conversion to Christianity.
An indicator of the success of that campaign came in the 1800s. Whether Protestant, Catholic or pagan, the Irish who immigrated to the U.S. during the 1840s potato famine brought their Celtic Samhain sabbat with them. “It was quickly accepted by Americans, especially the customs and traditions,” Carrillo said. “However, in the U.S. the holiday quickly lost its connection to — and was separated — from its origins.”
Carrillo also noted by this time the holiday was generally referred to as Halloween. Traced to circa 1556 England, Halloween (Hallowe’en) was, and is, a contraction of All Hallow’s Evening.
Americans whole-heartedly adopted the Celtic Halloween traditions of costumes, games of foretelling, frightful legends and storytelling, carved gourds, bonfires and trick or treating.
“According to John Santino, a very popular folklorist, trick-or-treat is associated with the European rhyming and mumming custom,” Carrillo said. “Small groups would go house to house and perform skits in exchange for money in Ireland or candies and baked goods in Germany and Britain. However, if the mummers arrived too soon, they would be sent away.”
Carillo said that for the Celts, giving treats also meant leaving a special offering for the ancestors. Another trick-or-treat forerunner was “souling” on All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2. In 19th and early 20th century England children would sing or recite a special verse to receive a “soul cake,” a shortbread cookie or pastry made with currents and spices.
On the evening of All Souls’ Day, preparations would be made to guide and welcome the dearly departed to their former earthly homes by placing lit candles in the windows. Their favorite foods and beverages plus soul cakes were also set out to welcome and nourish the ancestors.
“At this time of the year and at Beltane (May Day), there is a thinning of the veil between the worlds - life and afterlife,” Carillo said. “This thinning allows those in the afterlife to sense us more easily and we them. They can experience what we are saying, doing and feeling. And their messages for us are clearer and more easily received by us.
“For Wiccans this is a very powerful time of year,” Carillo said. “Summer’s End, Samhain, is the New Year. It is a time to connect with deceased loved ones and their wisdom as they do continue on behind the veil.”
It’s tradition to set up altars with pumpkins, apples and squash, along with a skull, which is a symbol of physical passage, she said. Candles and black and orange decorations are included. “For me, black represents the end of a year and conclusion of a cycle,” she said. “Orange represents the present harvest and promises of positive things to come in the new year.”
The Samhain altar also is personalized with framed photos and favorite foods of ancestors. “I connect with my (late) grandfather at Samhain,” Carillo said. “I experience such warm and amazing memories. During this time a place is also set for our (deceased) loved ones at our tables.
“During Samhain we actually make something our ancestors loved. For instance, my grandfather loved mac and cheese. So I’ll make that as an offering.”
Food plays an important role in Summer’s End celebrations, she said. Apple dumplings and pumpkin soup are traditional foods along with candy apples and stews cooked in pumpkins. Foods historically associated with Samhain include pumpkin pie, cornbread, Irish colcannon, sacred pig and sacred apples.”
The revered apple contains a sacred Wiccan symbol, Carillo said. “Cut an apple in half horizontally, crosswise through its circumference, to reveal a pentagram, which is a positive magical symbol representing earth, air, fire, water and spirit of being.”
During Samhain, a key part of this New Year season is the release of existing negative patterns through ritual, Carillo added. “It is very personal. In the Sacred Mists tradition, once the negative pattern or habit is selected, whether it be smoking or whatever, each person begins the process by writing a note to the Crone (an aspect of Wiccan goddess) about that negative, and their desire to change it can be quite cathartic. Then the note is burned in a symbolic bonfire — a cauldron, fire pit, etc. By burning it, the underworld takes that stuff away and it is gone. But that creates a void or vacuum which must be filled, preferably with the desired positive pattern.”
To achieve that desired outcome the Wiccans first connect with the spirit world. “It is not scary or evil,” Carrillo said. “Then using positive affirmations and really working with and on it, the goal of change for the new year is more likely to be accomplished, permanently.
“Every beginning has an ending,” Carrillo concluded. “And every ending has a new beginning.”