For most, it is just an excuse to dress up and have a party, the start of the midwinter party season which culminates in Christmas and the New Year.
From an anthropological perspective, the scary, spooky theme which most embrace belongs to a time honored tradition of facing our deepest fears in a controlled, safe environment.
We embrace all the monsters from the wardrobe, including the scariest of them all (as far as most folk are concerned) — death — but live to party another day.
It is a form of catharsis.
No one can doubt that the roots of Halloween lie deep in the past. Probably the ancient, Pagan past. “Halloween” — more often “Hallowe’en” in the UK — means simply “All Hallows’ Eve” — a reference to the fact that November 1st is the Christian feast of All Hallows — generally called “All Saints” today.
In Mexico, November 1st is “The Day of the Dead,” a feast of commemmoration of loved ones who have died. This often continues on November 2nd (the Catholic feast of All Souls). Although it shares many characteristics with Halloween, its origins are indiginous, and was originally a festival in honor of the Aztec Goddess of the Underworld.
While most Pagans participate in all the fun aspects of Halloween just like most people, Pagans often mark it with more sober observation too. Like the Mexicans, it is considered a time to honor and remember those who have died.
Many regard it as the end of the old year and start of a new, as seems to have been the case in Ireland into the medieval period.
And to distance it from the vernacular celebrations, the Irish name Samhain is often prefered.
It derives from the Old Irish sam “summer” and fuin “end.”
In Wales, Pagans and non-Pagans call it Calan Gaeaf “the first day of Winter.”
Whichever way you look at it, it is clear that the Celts regarded it as a time of transition.
Today, it is regarded as not just a time of transition between seasons, but between worlds. Between the planes of existence.
This ethereal, otherworldliness pervades all four of the year’s “quarter-days”, which fall midway between the solstices and equinoxes.
They are often called the “fire festivals” as there is evidence to suggest that fire — symbolic of purification and light — featured in the celebration of all the quarterdays.
But the sense that the “veil between worlds is thin” is felt particularly strongly at Samhain, and the festival which faces it on the other side of the wheel of the year — Beltane.
The focus of Samhain is very much on reflection — looking back, and looking inward. It is a time of remembrance and contemplation at the start of the season when the earth itself retreats within itself, to sleep.
Everywhere, there are signs of dying, death and decay — but we know it is only a semblance. An illusion.
For come the spring, it all springs up anew. Rejuvinated. Regenerated. Reborn.
The wheel always turns. There is no beginning. And no end.
And when it comes to names? Here are just a few to mark this special season:
Apple — apple bobbing is an old Halloween tradition, probably bound up in an ancient fertility rite to Pomona, Goddess of fruit, whose name derives from the Latin pomum “fruit,” source of the French pomme “apple” — a hint that of all fruit, apples are the fruit. English “apple” is cognate with the Welsh afal, with which Avalon, is also connected, a hint at the apple’s Otherworldly and mystical connections. She’s on my list to feature as a Pick of the Week, so I’ll say no more for now.
Aradia — an Italian Witch-Goddess, introduced to the world by the American folklorist Charles Leyland in 1899 in the influential Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. Probably a form of Herodias, which derives ultimately from the Greek hêrôs “hero.”
Autumn — appropriate for this festival as much as for the Equinox.
Calan — deriving ultimately from the Latin kalends a word used to mean “first of the month.” Calan Mai is used as the Welsh equivalent of Beltane, though it is used by all Welsh speakers to mean simply “May Day.”
Circe – one of the most famous mythological Witches. A daughter of the Sun, her name derives from the Greek for “to encircle” — no doubt with enchantments. Other legendary Witches with wonderful names include Ceridwen, (the Witch of) Endor, Lilith, Medea, Morgan/Morgana, all who deserve posts (and will get them) all to themselves.
Edric — an Old English name meaning “rich ruler.” Wild Edric is a figure of English folklore, associated with the Wild Hunt — and Halloween marks the start of the Wild Hunt season. Of course, chief among those associated with the Hunt is Odin.
Eve – Instead of Halloween, think All Hallow’s Eve. Eve as an established name is the English form of the Hebrew Ḥawwāh. But there is also the English “eve” a poetic form of “evening,” redolent of twilight, and thus perfect for the season.
Hallow — an Old English world meaning “saint.”
Halloween, Hallowe’en – not without precedent, such as a little girl called Hallowe’en Lucy Trodden in Durham, England, in 1899, but it certainly makes for a very bold choice.
Hecate – the famous Witch-Goddess of the Greeks. Although not specifically associated with Halloween (although she may have a festival at the end of the November), she is a Goddess of the earth and boundaries. Many Wiccans and Witches regard her as the Goddess in her Crone aspect, making it an appropriate — if distinctive — name for a girl born at this time of year.
Nicevenn — a Scottish Goddess, equated with Hecate, Diana and others, whose name means either “daughter of heaven” or “daughter of frenzy.” She is particularly associated with Samhuinn.
November – a neglected month name, but why not? It comes to us direct and unchanged (except in pronunciation) straight from ancient Pagan Rome too, with the literal meaning of “ninth month.”
Nox — the Latin for “night”. Nights are drawing in quickly now, and we have more night than day. With Halloween’s association with death, and darkness, Nox resonates well.
October — same comment as November, except it means “eighth month.”
Pumpkin — the vegetable which has come to symbolize Halloween more than any other. Its etymology provides more suble options, such as the original Pompion, from Pepon, a type of melon or gourd, deriving ultimately from the Greek pepôn “ripe,” “mellow.”
Samhain — As already said, this is the name which many Pagans, especially Wiccans, use for Halloween. Others, especially Druids, often use a slightly different version, the Scots Gaelic cognate Samhuinn. With the meaning “summer’s end” it would make a good name generally for those born at this time of year.
And with that, I wish you a bright and blessed Halloween!