“What is remembered, lives.”
It’s Halloween! Shop windows are full of decorations—Witches and ghosts and pumpkins galore. For those of us who are Witches — that is, who practice the ancient Goddess-centered traditions that hail from Europe and the Middle East — this time of year is both beloved and dreaded. Suddenly Witches are everywhere! But the Witches of the pointy hats and the spooks and cobwebs of your haunted house are themselves only faint ghosts of the real mystery of the season.
For us, Halloween is the time of year when we come together to honor our ancestors, to mourn our beloved dead and celebrate their lives. In this autumn season, when the year itself appears to by dying. As the leaves fall, and the harvest is gathered in, we celebrate the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain or Summer’s End. The veil between the worlds is thin, we say, and those who have gone beyond can now return and visit us again, reminding us that death does not destroy our connection to those we love.
Death and loss come to us all, in life, and to get through them, we need community. When we suffer a profound loss, the deepest comfort for our grief comes from the care and love we receive from friends and family and community.
In our Reclaiming Pagan tradition, we proudly call ourselves Witches, in alignment with those who were burned and persecuted for holding to the old ways, those who guarded the ancient healing practices and mystical knowledge, those uppity women of wisdom and courage. We celebrate Halloween with intimate gatherings to honor our own beloved dead and with big, public ritual extravaganzas like the Spiral Dance we hold each year in the Bay Area, with elaborate altars, a full chorus, dancers, stiltwalkers, musicians, drummers, and a spiral danced by more than a thousand people.
And we enjoy those common customs that still retain echoes of the old mysteries. For when the veil is thin, the Mysterious Ones come walking through. Once we expected spirits to come visiting and lit their way with candles and gave offerings of the harvest. Today they are likely to take the guise of children dressed as princesses and cowboys asking for a trick-or-treat. But children are, after all, the ancestors returning, and we still light their way with jack-o-lanterns and give them offerings.
But this Halloween is different. As fires rage and radiation pours into the ocean, as climate change spins into an unstoppable cycle, the deep dread we carry is this: Will we leave a living world to those who come after us? Will we fail the ancestors, those who have gone before and those who return?
In the old traditions of Witchcraft, the year is a cycle. Every ending, therefore, is a new beginning. The time of death is also the year’s rebirth.
We can remember that lesson as we face the huge challenges and immense losses of these times. We need to make deep and profound changes in the way we live, if we want future generations to inherit from us a viable planet. Change can be frightening, but it can also be exhilarating. Halloween tells us to connect, to forge bonds of love that death cannot sever, to support one another as we face those things that are hard to face alone.
Light a candle. Remember a friend. Cook a favorite dish of someone who has passed. Tell a story about their life. Pass the memories on. Trust that the ancestors want to help us, they want us to succeed. Accompany the little witches and cats and superheroes as they collect their candy offerings. Don’t eat it all at once, but savor the sweetness as the days grow darker. Know that you are an ancestor of the future, and your choices, your actions, your human hands can turn the wheel of fate.
Starhawk is the author of twelve books, including The Spiral Dance, The Fifth Sacred Thing, and her latest, The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups. She is one of the founders of Reclaiming, an extended tradition of Pagan spirituality, and directs Earth Activist Training, which teaches permaculture, ecological design with a grounding in spirit. Her website is http://www.starhawk.org/.