Speaking Out About Halloween
by Dana Corby
Halloween: the time of year that just about everyone associates with Witches, along with ghosts, goblins, and other scary "supernatural" beings. But I’ve been a witch for more than twenty years and I can tell you there is nothing either scary or supernatural about us. And there is nothing more to fear on Halloween night than on any other night of the year.
Each year as October approaches, self styled experts flood the media with dire warnings about the supposed physical and spiritual dangers of celebrating Halloween. They trot out the same tired old rumors of poisons and razor blades in trick or treat candy. They hint that your neighbors are probably child molesters. Lately they’ve been making the astonishing claim that Witches put curses on the treats they distribute, so that the children who eat them will be "possessed by demons."
There is no truth to any of it, there never has been!
Witches are actually rather ordinary folks; not a wiggly nose among us. We have jobs and families, we vote and pay taxes, and we want most of the same things you do: Peace, prosperity, a good world to leave our children. Unlike most people, though, we spend part of each autumn faced with open religious discrimination, based on needless ignorance and fear. Witchcraft, also known as Wicca, is a modern revival of the pre-Christian religions of western Europe. We are pagans, that is, we see divinity in nature rather than in a transcendent spiritual realm or an omnipotent being. We speak of our deity as the Goddess or Mother Nature, although to most of us the godhead is dual – both Goddess and God. As such, our beliefs lie outside mainstream Judeo-Christian concepts.
This does not mean however, that Witches are in any way opposed to Christianity. Like most religions throughout history, we grant that different faiths are right for different people. We oppose only the mistaken belief of some individual Christians that since they posses the only "real" religion, constitutional freedoms of religion do not apply to the rest of us. On the rare occasions that Witches find themselves in conflict with Christians, we see it as a civil rights matter, not a religious dispute. We are not interested in arguing "my Gods better than your God."
Wicca’s ethic laws are at least as stringent as those of other faiths: Our law says "Harm none," and that means not our neighbor, not our neighbor’s dog, and certainly not out neighbor’s child. It prohibits not only physical harm but such intangibles as violation of another’s free will. And it means ourselves, as well; a Witch should cultivate both bodily and mental health. This outlook on morality, because it does not rely on obedience to specific commandments, covers much more behavior: rather than worrying about sinning, we try to foresee the results of our actions so as to take the wisest course. While we may not share Christianity’s beliefs in heaven and hell, we do believe that all actions have consequences, and that whatever good or evil we do will find it’s way back to us. Our ethos comes from within rather than being imposed from outside or above. It is based on personal honor and responsibility, and by these principals we live and hope to live again on our beloved Mother Earth.
As worshippers of nature, Witches celebrate a wheel of eight Sabbats or sacred days: Ancient festivals marking the round of the seasons. The Christian calendar, as even some Christian writers have noted, borrows heavily from Paganism. This is no doubt because until very recently people of every faith shared the same experience of the land and the passing seasons. We share Yule, for instance, which is the old name of both the winter solstice and Christmas. Easter, derived from the celebration of the Spring Equinox, is even named after the Saxon fertility Goddess Eostre. And though Protestantism abandoned them long ago, both Imbolc (Lady Day) and Lammas (August Eve) have been retained in the Catholic year, as has All Hallows Eve -Halloween.
To witches, Halloween is a religious holiday much like Thanksgiving, a time to feast in praise of nature’s bounty. It is also our New Year’s day, time to let go of the old and look forward into the future. The old name for this festival is Samhain, pronounced approximately "Sow-un." This is a Celtic (Irish, Scottish) word meaning "summer’s end." Some writers have claimed that Samhain is the name of a Celtic death god, but Celtic scholars consider this a fabrication. In fact, Samhain is to this day the name in parts of Ireland and Scotland for the month of November.
Samhain is the last of three harvest festivals. August has Lammas, the grain harvest; In September was Mabon, Autumn Equinox and the apple harvest; and on the eve of November is Samhain, the cattle harvest. The idea of a cattle harvest is strange today. But in ancient times, it was essential. Though the Celts counted their wealth in cattle, they could not keep whole herds alive through the winter. Rather than let all of them starve, they kept the best animals for breeding stock, the rest were blessed, thanked, and butchered. This was not some occult "blood sacrifice" but practical animal husbandry, done with respect – essentially "pagan kosher." Every community held it’s own Samhain feat, and the people stuffed themselves with all the autumn goodies they would not see for another year, especially that great seasonal luxury, meat. They stored up food for the winter not in a refrigerator, but as fat on their own bodies. (We of course do have refrigerators. Our feasts come mostly from the super market.)
With the dying of the cattle and the seeming dying of the year, it was appropriate also to remember the communities’ human dead. The religious side of the feast of Samhain has always included recalling by name our loved ones who have passed over during the year, with prayers for their safe passage. This is the origin of the secular Halloween’s "spooks": the spirits of all the beloved dead gathering around one last time for our farewells. For us this formal letting-go is an important aspect of the grief process. Pagans in general, and Witches especially, do not share the horror of death which pervades mainstream culture. Because we are a joyful people , we hope to avoid death as long as is practical, but we do not particularly fear it. Witches see it as a transition, an alternate reality, which in it’s own manner serves life. Because we love life, Witches are healers and gardeners and artists, cooks and craftspeople and teachers of lore. Because we value balance, Witches honor Death at Samhain.
The part of Halloween that makes it Halloween to most Americans is of course, "trick or treat." Interestingly, this custom, though ancient, is preserved much more faithfully in North America than in the old countries. Large numbers of Irish and Scots emigrated here just before the old ways began dying out in the British Isles, in the period between Queen Victoria and World War 1. By then the celebration was far different than it had once been. The house to house begging processions that we now call trick or treat were not originally part of Halloween at all. From the Middle Ages right up through he renaissance such processions were a major part of Advent and Christmas; like most Yule customs, the true origin is lost in Pagan antiquity. Along with other Yule merriment, the processions were suppressed during the Protestant Reformation. But the people would not give them up, and took them underground by simply moving them to Halloween.
One feature of modern Halloween, though, has always been a part of it: disguises. The ancient Celts believed in fairies, as many modern Celts still do. And they believed that at Samhain the walls between our world and the realm of fairy grew thin, and that the fair folk could come over. The fairies were said to ride the mortal lands then, stealing beautiful human children to raise as their own. So, mothers "uglified: their children for the night: dirtied their faces, ratted their hair, dressed them in rags – whatever might make the fairies overlook them. And the children, kids being kids even in the middle ages, thought this was a blast! Eventually, as usually happens with folk customs, the reason for it was forgotten: today any kind of costume can be worn, or none at all.
So, what should a modern parent do? Is it safe to send your children out trick-or-treating? Though not as safe as it used to be, the truth is that it’s fairly safe if you use some common sense. Those horrifying tales of razor blades and drugs in candy have happily proven to be what is called an urban myth, like the sewer alligators and the ghost hitchhiker: you know someone who says they know someone it happened to, only no one actually does. Hospitals have offered free X-rays of Halloween treats for many years now, and have never found a foreign object. Only one case of Halloween poisoning has ever actually been substantiated by the authorities, and it proved to have been done by the children’s own father after they came home. It seems they were insured better than they were loved.
Nor are your children likely to have any spells cast on them on Halloween or any other time. While there are a few "wanna-be-Satanists" around who might like to cast spells on your kids, the truth is, they can’t. Magic has natural laws, just like any other physics or chemistry. One of those laws is that innocence is armor against evil. Another is that magic takes work. The kind of people attracted to "black magic" generally either are just showing off or think they’ve found a way to get what they want without work. Once they realize the enormous amount of effort it takes to violate the free will of even a child, they’re all through.
What the Witches on your children’s route are likely to do to them is make them mad: we tend to give out healthy stuff instead of candy. One Witch I know gives toothpaste! But real dangers do exist. Every year trick-or-treaters are hit by cars on dark streets, bitten by dogs, fall down stairs – any number of mishaps. Predatory humans, though mercifully few, are real. And excited, sugar high children are not careful. So the parents must be. Make sure that your children’s costumes enable them to see and be seen; if you can’t talk them out of going in black as Dracula or a ninja (or despite all I’ve said here, as the "wicked witch.") Make sure they carry a flashlight so they’re not invisible in the dark. Arrange with your neighbors for a "safe house" on each block; make sure your children know where it is and forbid them to enter any other house on their route. This could be a great PTA project. Best of all, of course, is to go with them.
Ration the sweets once they’re brought home. A heavy sugar overdose can trigger hyperactivity, hypoglycemia or in rare cases, even diabetes. In any case it’s bad for their teeth and hard on tummies. But don’t worry about your neighborhood Witches, we’ll be busy celebrating Samhain!
Dana Corby publishes pamphlets and booklets through her publishing company Rantin’ Raven Press.
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