The Real Meaning of Halloween
Ghosts and goblins, witches on broomsticks, pumpkins, candy and spiderwebs…it’s that time of year again. Halloween—probably every child’s favorite holiday, combining the irresistible attractions of dressing up in costume and gorging on candy.
But there’s a deeper spiritual meaning that underlies the holiday for Pagans and real Witches—those who follow earth-based Goddess traditions that predate Christianity.
As we in the northern hemisphere move into the time of cold and the dark of winter, we celebrate our New Year, and honor both death and regeneration.
In Northern Europe, Samhain (the Celtic term for Halloween, pronounced sow-in as in ‘sour’) was the time when the cattle were moved from the summer pastures to winter shelter. It was the end of the growing season, the end of harvest, a time of thanksgiving, when the ancestors and the spirits of the beloved dead would return home to share in the feast. Death did not sever one’s connections with the community. People would leave offerings of food and drink for their loved ones, and set out candles to light their way home. Those traditions gave us many of our present day customs. Now we set out jack-o-lanterns and give offerings of candy to children—who are, after all, the ancestors returning in new forms.
Death and regeneration are always linked in Goddess thealogy. Birth, growth, death and renewal are a cycle that plays over and over again through natural systems and human lives. Embracing this cycle, we don’t need to fear death, but instead can see it as a stage of life and a gateway to some new form of being.
So Samhain is a time to remember and honor those who have died, to celebrate their lives and appreciate their gifts, to tell stories about them to the next generation so their memory will not be lost. In Latino cultures, Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead on November 2, is a time to visit the graves of loved ones, to feast there and honor their memory with altars and prayers. We set up altars in our homes, with pictures and mementos, and in my house, we like to invite friends and family to an ancestor dinner, where we cook traditional foods and share our family stories.
Samhain is also a time for deep spiritual work. At this time of year, we say, “the veil is thin that divides the worlds, the seen from the unseen, the day to day from the mysteries.” In San Francisco, the Reclaiming tradition of Wicca sponsors a big public ritual, where we celebrate the renewal and creativity that emerges from the dark, with elaborate altars, dance, music, culminating in a spiral danced by more than a thousand people that honors the energies of rebirth and renewal.
Halloween, and our traditions, are much misunderstood. This year, when you hand out candy or shepherd your children through the streets, we invite you to remember the deeper meaning of the holiday: that death is no barrier to love, and every ending brings a new beginning.
Let It Begin Now—a CD of music from our Spiral Dance ritual:
Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. HarperSanFrancisco, 1979, 1989, 1999
Starhawk and M. Macha Nightmare. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying. HarperSanFrancisco, 1997
Starhawk, Anne Hill and Diane Baker. Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Tradition. HarperSanFrancisco, 1998