Ghostly greetings, everyone!
As I near one hundred blog posts on this site, I thought I’d share something special for Halloween. It’s an article I’ve been working on for a while now, part of a series I’m writing on the various holidays that make up my personal “ritual year.” It’s long, though not as long as it will eventually be, and lacks annotation (likewise it does not contain links like my usual posts, other than in its Works Consulted at the end), but hopefully you will find it useful.
Please enjoy, and I wish you the very best Halloween (or Hallows, as I call it) you can have!
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Children run from door to door, dressed in costumes and begging for candy. As each door opens, there are monsters on the front porch, ghosts and ghouls waiting at the threshold with outstretched hands. The familiar shout of “trick-or-treat!” fills the early autumn air. Chocolate, sweets, money, and toys all get doled out to the eager masked masses (along with the occasional toothbrush from well-meaning but uninspired do-gooders). It is Halloween, and all is well.
By now, most everyone knows that Halloween has its origins in pre-Christian festivals mostly stemming from the British Isles and honoring the dead. Fires are lit, those who have passed on in the previous year wander the earth, and all manner of eerie activity takes place. For a New World witch, however, the nature of this evening (or set of evenings, depending on how an individual witch practices the tradition) is more than what commonly gets called “Celtic” nostalgia. Instead, there are a number of powerful forces at work on this night. Some are easy to understand, and some are harder to wrap one’s head around. But first things first, let’s get the obvious out of the way.
Halloween (or Hallows, as I call this series of days), is spooky. It is eerie. It is morbid, macabre, and a little bit twisted. It’s also funny, sometimes sexy, a good bit bittersweet, and no small amount of weird. It is supposed to be all of these things. Others may disagree and require absolute solemnity as they honor their dearly departed, and there are probably some who would like to exorcise the entire bone-chilling side of the holiday. But for me, and I think for most witches who do the work that has been done since the 18th century (and before) on this soil, there’s something in this time of year that requires skeletons and jack-o-lanterns, ghosts and goblins, and a good hard look at all the creepy-ookie-spooky parts of life we tend to ignore otherwise. And then, a good laugh to shake the willies away. This is the time of year where ghost stories, murder tales, and recounts of run-ins with the devil beg to be told.
Why do we dance with devils and the dead in tale and practice during Hallows, though?
There is, of course, the old saw that on this night “the veil between the worlds is thin.” There are many nights throughout the year, however, when the door between this world and the next swings open and intercourse between spirits and mortals is easy. The uniquely macabre tone of Hallows, in my opinion, has a lot more to do with its position between summer and winter, and more importantly, its position as a fulcrum between light and darkness, work and pleasure, comfort and danger.
The months preceding Halloween have been full of long days, often full of activity and work (during the previous centuries, farm work would have been going on right up to around the time of Halloween). Suddenly, everything around us starts dying, the days become noticeably shorter, and our hard work comes to an end, more or less. From a modern context, we don’t always understand this idea, because we aren’t working with agriculture directly for the most part, but think even of all the things that get done in summer after the work day is done: gardens dug, lawns mowed, children taken to parks after school. Now that the light is gone early, we—like our ancestors—have to find ways to occupy those dark evenings.
Enter the Hallows. Most of what a New World witch can do on Halloween reflects inherited practices from the British Isles. Because the Separatists (aka Puritans) were fiercely anti-holiday for religious reasons, the phenomenon of autumnal trick-or-treating and masked mischief didn’t really arrive in America until during the mid-19th century. Certain pockets of Appalachian settlers—due to their Scots-Irish heritage—began holding “snap-apple” or “nutcrack” nights. When the wave of Irish immigrants made their way to America following the potato famine in the mid-1800’s, this set of practices expanded to become a widespread phenomenon.
At this time of year, all sorts of mischief is afoot. And all sorts of merrymaking accompanies it. Some of the age-old practices (or at least centuries-old practices) associated with October 31st are:
Nutcrack Night – There are several divinatory rituals performed with nuts kept in the shell and placed in a fireplace which foretell of love, loss, and survival into the next year.
Snap-Apple Night – Games involving apples, such as bobbing for them or “snapping” after an apple dangled from a string using only one’s teeth, are very popular. In some of these games, objects are hidden inside apples in order to bestow blessings on the one who manages to catch the elusive fruit. Providing, of course, that the one catching the apple doesn’t break his or her teeth.
Guising – The practice of going out dressed in various fiendish costumes is one that shows up in many cultures. In Halloween celebrations, the reason usually given for this is that the frightening devils, ghosts, and goblins will either be frightened by mortals dressed like them, or mistake those mortals for their own and leave them be. This clearly taps into a major theme for the Hallows holidays: the roving spirits, sometimes seen as the Wild Hunt (see “Roving Spirits” below)
A-Souling – The origin of trick-or-treating, going a-souling (or just souling in some places) meant traveling from house to house, singing songs or repeating rhymes in hopes of getting some sort of reward. The most common reward was a little cake called a “soul cake.” There is a famous song which encapsulates the practice nicely. This practice also became part of the Christmastide celebration, in the form of caroling (see “Into the Dark” below)
Mischief-making – A nearly universal phenomenon, the idea of a holiday where good people do naughty things is quite cathartic. Witches should understand that there is something subtler going on when the world is turned upside down and people begin acting “devilish.” In America, we seem to appreciate this sort of phenomenon on April Fool’s Day, but less so on Halloween. This may be because in recent years the nature of the pranks has gone from soaping shop windows and throwing streamers of paper (or toilet tissue) over trees and houses to the infamous arson found in Detroit on “Devil’s Night,” or Oct. 30th. However, a witch playing at devilish tricks is less likely to be doing harm to his or her neighbors at this time of year, and more likely to be playing “tricks” on the natural order of things.
Ghost Stories – What would Halloween be without a good scare, right? Ghost stories told at this time of year can be spooky, terrifying, or even rather funny. Stories about devils, goblins, and other hellish creatures are also appropriate, as are tales of witches and witchcraft. Telling stories about famous witches, in fact, can be a great way to combine the ancestral aspect of the holiday (as the witches of the past are spiritual ancestors if not genetic ones) and the more evocative and spooky side of Halloween.
The restless dead are fairly universal. Many cultures have tales of vampire-or-zombie-like creatures which return from beyond the grave to wreak havoc on the living. Still more common is the recognition that the dead come back in a less menacing form: as ghosts or spirits to visit the living. The living, however, often fear the dead who belong to a world that terrifies us (if only because we don’t know of many who come back from it…or so we think, more on that later).
In terms of witchcraft, however, the dead are our friends. They are our ancestors, teachers, progenitors, and constant companions. Any witch worth his or her blessed salt has communion with the dead—or at least spirits of some kind.
One particular group of spirits out and about on this night goes by the name of the Wild Hunt. Fundamentally, this is the fairy court (also sometimes called the Unseelie Court or any number of other epithets) riding out into the mortal world. The souls of the dead are being led by this party’s ride through the darkness to the point where they may cross over into the Underworld. The problem is that the Wild Hunt isn’t exactly concerned if it gathers the souls of the dead or the souls of the living, and thus a mortal caught out by the Hunt can be in dire straits. The tale of Tam Lin is an excellent point of reference: the mortal Tam Lin was abducted by the Wild Hunt and must remain with them for seven years. After that, he is to be offered up as a “tithe to Hell” by the Fairy Queen. His lover (and the mother of his child yet unborn) saves him in a sort of reversal of the Wild Hunt, winning him back to the mortal realm
Other roving spirits may need guidance from the living on the nights of Hallows. One of the primary traditions associated with these nights is the lighting of candles in windows to call the souls of dead ancestors home to rest and visit. It is presumed that if they can at least get home for a while and share a little meal (see “The Dumb Supper”) they will be refreshed and able to find their way to the Underworld again.
Or so we hope…
The Dumb Supper
The famous Dumb Supper has been added to the ritual observance of many groups during the Hallows. I attended a Wiccan-style Samhain event which featured a very moving Dumb Supper once, and the appeal was not lost on me. The point of the Dumb Supper, at least superficially, is an act of communion with the deceased and other spirits. This is not exactly different than a Red Meal, save that during the Dumb Supper, silence is required while the meal is served and consumed. I’ve always understood the silence to be a method for tuning into the spiritual world around us, especially since our minds are focused on that world when we consume a communal meal.
The experience can be deeply emotional for some, as the beloved ancestors and friends who have passed on return to us and manifest themselves in order to share in our world once more. Some people are able to hold silent conversations with the dead during this meal, and some find that the meal acts more as a prelude to spirit communication. Either way, the Dumb Supper held at Hallows is particularly significant because beyond being a communal meal with particular ancestral spirits, the shades of all the dead are able to join in the feast. This leads some to set apart a portion of the meal in advance for those less-than-savory ghosts and goblins that might seek to do harm to the witch or her company. This portion is then offered as far away from the main table as possible—off her property if feasible.
There are other aspects of the Dumb Supper which are not as simple as a plate of food and a brimming cup of cider passed around in silence. One ritual for this meal involves setting the table backwards, as well, and leaving an empty seat. If a girl were to do this, during the course of the meal, the shade of her future husband would appear in the empty chair while they dined. One folktale about this practice recalls how a girl performed this rite and saw her future husband, though he seemed to be in tremendous pain. When she later met him, she knew him instantly but said nothing of the ritual. They were married, and soon after she made a casual comment about the Dumb Supper rite she’d performed when a young girl. The husband grew purple with rage and told her “So it was you! I went through hell that night and back again, you foul witch!” and promptly stabbed her in the heart. Above all things, such stories are fables about the consequences of being frivolous with magic.
Into the Dark
While the New World Witch may not find himself tied to the common “wheel of the year” associated with other denominations of magical religion, there is definitely something about Hallows that has to do with darkness and light. The shifting tides of these forces becomes more and more apparent the further into autumn we journey each year, until it seems our whole day is but a breath between nights. For a witch, this is a blessing in many ways: we seem to have more liberty to be ‘oot and aboot’ in the dark of night, the moon with all its power is most easily viewed in a night sky, and it seems as though the mysterious and unknown are everywhere in the darkness.
This dark time of year is full of rituals and mischief. From innocently childish pranks like soaping windows to the destructive fires of Detroit’s Devil’s Night, there seems to be a sense of Merry Misrule which kicks in as the daylight shrinks away from us. The nights of Hallows are potent for this sort of behavior, not least because we also add the additional tool of disguise. Between night and the masks, it’s no wonder a number of people simply lock their doors and don’t come out until morning during this holiday. Which is their loss, of course.
Guising—going door to door in costume begging treats or money—has been around since at least the middle ages, and may have antecedents in ancient practices. In Britain and parts of the American South, the practice of guising during festivals happens not just at Hallows, but Christmas as well. Seeing as how Christmas is a fulfillment of darkness and misrule which begins at Hallows, that makes a good deal of sense to me. Sadly, society does not like us to dress up and go door to door at Christmastime unless it’s in the form of Santa or carolers (though both are clearly connected to this practice, too).
Experiencing the dark of the year in conjunction with the rising of the dead lends a spooky air to this holiday, but inside that spookiness is a winking jester. This is supposed to be fun, an inversion of the normal way of things where we teach our children to share and be cautious. On Hallows, we want them dressed as monsters and ghouls, begging for candy from our neighbors, though. And that is just as it should be. Yes, there is certainly a place for solemnity in the darkness, but there is also a place for mirth.
Hailing the Hallows
So what might a New World witch do on Hallows that is so different from everyone else? Quite simply, not much. Take the kiddies trick-or-treating, indulge your sweet-tooth, attend a masked ball or party, give someone a friendly fright, and do whatever all of your non-witchy neighbors are doing. If you wish, have a Dumb Supper and leave a candle in the window for the dead. Go spend some time in a graveyard, leaving offerings for the dead and asking them to help you. Do divinations with cards, shells, or whatever you like. See if you can get your friends into it—even if you camp it up a bit, that’s okay. It is that Merry Misrule I spoke of earlier coming out. The dead can appreciate a good laugh, and you may be surprised how accurate your readings are if you let down the guard of seriousness which we so often keep up when working with the spirits. Do keep some magical protection about, as some boogers are like people and have no sense of humor; it’s best to leave them be, but a little cross or star worn about the neck or a good bag of salt tied to your clothes wouldn’t hurt either.
If you absolutely must make this holiday something more dramatic than it is, I recommend looking to stories for your answers. Read tales like “Godfather Death” or “Jack and the Devil,” and see what you can make of them. You may come up with something worth trying, or you may just learn a new yarn to spin sometime in the future. Share your meals and stories with the dead as best you can—leave seats and plates empty but set apart for your invisible guests, and invite them to participate in the festivities. Play games of divination with nuts and apples, and mirrors and Ouija boards if you dare. Sneak off to a dark corner with someone and have a little extra fun if you can, and if not, just revel in the madness of the nights of Hallows.
As a final note, Hallows is also a good time of the year for finding lost things, ferreting out thieves, and hex work, should you be so inclined to do such workings. It is also a nice time to think about just what it means to be a witch, because you are surrounded by both the living and the dead in a very tangible way on these nights. And a witch, above all, is someone who is of both worlds: living and dead at the same time. What better time than Halloween to show that off?
Works Consulted (and generally just good reading):
Belk, Russell W. “HALLOWEEN: AN EVOLVING AMERICAN CONSUMPTION RITUAL”, in Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, pp. 508-517.
Burns, Robert. “Halloween.” Available online at http://www.robertburns.org/works/74.shtml.
Clar, Mimi. “Negro Beliefs.” Western Folklore, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct., 1959), pp. 332-334.
Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. West Virginia Univ. Press, 2008.
Grimm, Jacob & Wilhelm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Bantam, 2003.
Hendricks, George D. “Superstitions Collected in Denton, Texas.” Western Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan., 1956), pp. 1-18.
Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford Paperbacks, 2001.
Milnes, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery. University of Tennessee Press, 2007.
Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays & Celebrations in American Life. Univ. of Illinois Press, 1995.
—. Halloween & Other Festivals: Life & Death. University of Tennessee Press, 1994.