July 18th, 2024

Samhain: misunderstood meaning of Halloween’s earliest ancestors

By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on October 26, 2023.

Herald photo by Theodora Macleod Alex Jaeger lighting the candles on her Samhain alter. The pagan holiday is a time of reflection and meditation, says Jaeger.

When the sun sets on October 31 and the streets fill with little Barbies and mini Spider-Mans, dragging pillow cases stuffed with treats behind them, begins a holiday that has often been forgotten in favour of its more commercial variation.

Samhain (pronounced Saa-win) is the Pagan sabbat from which Halloween derived. Known also as the witches’ New Year, it is said to be the night when the spirit world and world of the living are most easily accessible to one another.

Samhain can be traced back to ancient Celtic spiritual traditions and many of the rituals associated with the festival have a direct link to modern Halloween festivities.

Carving pumpkins and displaying Jack-o-Lanterns was once carving turnips into menacing faces, with hope that spirits with nefarious intentions wandering the living world that night, might assume the home is already occupied and there is no space for them.

What is now dressing up in costumes and trick-or-treating, was once disguising oneself as a monster or animal to confuse those unsavoury spirits and presenting offerings to them on their travels or honouring loved ones who have passed with their favourite foods, not unlike Day of the Dead.

“Typically, it (Samhain) is believed to mark the dark half of the year,” says Alex Jaeger, co-owner of Mystic Mountain Magick in downtown Lethbridge. “A time when we will look at what we need to let go of and what no longer serves us in this life as we go into winter where we are going to have a lot of reflection and meditation.”

For those in the pagan community, some of whom call themselves witches, Samhain comes with ritual. Not unlike the practices of religions under the umbrella of Christianity or Judaism, there is great variation in pagan rituals depending on the practitioner.

Though unlike most organized religions, witches and pagans tend to be more solitary in their spiritual expressions, looking inward rather than to a larger assembly or assigned leader. As a result, many of the rituals and traditions are done alone or in small groups.

Jaeger says there are a few modern rituals that witches/pagans across the world may choose to do between the setting of the sun on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

“It can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be,” she says.

The crux of the Samhain is expressing gratitude and connecting with ancestors in preparation of the new year. With that some choose to write to passed loved ones thanking them what they have given or taught both in life and death.

Also common is setting a plate at the harvest meal table for passed loved ones and ancestors. And of course, as the boundary between the living and spiritual worlds is at its thinnest, Samhain is the perfect time for divination, the practice of looking deeper into an issue or foretelling potential future outcomes. Reading tarot cards, runes, and tea leaves are some of the more commonly recognized divination practices, however there are many other methods such as scrying-think peering into a crystal ball, and oneiromancy-dream interpretation.

In addition to the rituals of gratitude and divination is the preparation for a new year.

“Rather than Dec. 31, this is our New Year,” Jaeger explains.

As many in the secular world try to adopt new habits in the new year, so do pagans in their own way through releasing- writing down what no longer serves them, from people in their lives to habits or jobs.

“With traditional New Year’s, you’re coming up with those New Year’s resolutions. This is thinking about it in another way-this is what I am not going to do.”

She adds that many choose to reflect deeply on the past year while creating their list which can then be set ablaze.

Jaeger says there is a misconception in mainstream conversation and pop culture that witches, paganism, and Samhain are associated with darkness and satanic worship.

“A good 90 per cent of stuff that you see in Hollywood is fiction,” she says. “They’re taking maybe little bits of pieces that they’ve heard, or read, or whatever, embellishing some of it, twisting some of it, and it’s really not an accurate representation at all.”

“Absolutely media has put this kind of evil spin on things, as well as an unreal look at what magic is and how it’s practiced.”

Shows such as the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, American Horror Story- Coven, and films like The Craft have created an inaccurate and damaging assumption of what magic and paganism are, fortunately Jaeger is happy to set the record straight.

“Things like spells are a little more like prayers with ingredients,” she explains. “We’re not making things appear out of thin air.”

She understands though, why some might be hesitant of paganism.

“To sit here and maybe celebrate some aspects of that (death) might seem dark, but it’s more so embracing that it’s a part of life, a part of the cycle we have to embrace just as much as the other side.” In the end, she says that paganism is all about balance and fluidity. “There’s dark and there’s light, there’s good and there’s bad, they exist together.”

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