|“Witches Tea Party”
Yes, those are our real working uniforms! An actual image of a traditional institutionalized healing coven. (The robes are red, the traditional Western colour of healing magic.) These are members of The Hospital of Holy and Undivided Trinity at Castle Rising, Norfolk, England, founded by Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, in 1610. Though ostensibly Christianized, the foundation provides for a governess and 12 sisters. (So, you know, a coven of 13, even including an HPS!) Here four of the ladies are enjoying their afternoon tea. ca. 1929
Image © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/
Samhain has always been one of my favourite High Holidays. Hallow’een, not so much…
Samhain (usually pronounced Sow-wen)[i] is a traditional recognition and honouring of our ancestors: their wisdom and knowledge, as well as their genetic contribution. With remnants even today in many Celtic dominant areas, though called by different names, as one of the Eight Solar holidays, it is seen as one of the great Feasts and Sabbats. It is the dying of the Old Year and the beginning of the New, where the Veil between the worlds grows thin, and for three nights, those from the Other World can more easily join us. During that sacred time, not only shamans but ordinary folks can communicate with the dead. The Silent Supper [ii]is a ritual some use to show our guests, giests,[iii] ghosts our hospitality. The fairies, goblins, and other spirits from the Other World arrive at our door on the Day of the Dead, and we hand them treats to pacify them and beg for good luck in the New Year, or at least bribe them so they leave us alone. Though only children now play the roles of the spirits, sprites, the traditional adult version of Hogmany, hagmena, or Hag’s Moon, still takes place on the current New Year, where mummers[iv] dress up in costumes and harass passers-by[v] for drinks to curry the favour of the spirits.
Halloween, on the other hand, is the Christian trivialization and secularization of these nearly timeless rituals. As part of the Christian colonization, they were banned outright at first, and occasionally still are[vi], condemned as Satanic.[vii] Unfortunately, they were way too much fun, and had so much antiquity that the country folk continued with them almost unabated. Next was the reduction to mere festival. As most of the sacred aspects were removed, the Church threw their blessing behind it, even turning the third day into All Saints Day, and the most sacred Eve was transmogrified into quaint country custom.[viii] With this maneuver, the sacred Death or ghosts or monster costumes could now be anything at all, though that part took centuries to really take off. And it was only last century that saw the degeneration to “slutty cat” costumes.
Naturally, however, witches have always been associated with this season in particular. Specifically targeted by the Christian power elite for many reasons, witches are also known for their correspondence with the Other World. Many were known as shamans[ix], but as the ritual professionals of the pagan world, they also performed the vital function of preparation and pacification of the dead, a task the Christian clergy later appropriated. Witches were a vital and venerated part of the ceremonies, so with the denigration of Samhain as a Day of the Dead and start of the New Year to a costume party, the demonization of witches was inevitable. The myth of Satanic worship doesn’t hold quite as much water these days, of course, so the caricatures and stereotyping of witches has descended to the level of cartoons, but there is still that element of horror and fear associated with us, and the images are still used to frighten children and disgust adults.
I once saw a poster around the time of Samhain entitled “Questions to Ask a Witch’ in an elementary school I was visiting for a spinning function. I thought “Great! Very enlightened and multi-cultural of them.’ Until I saw the questions, like “Why are you evil?” I’m surprised they didn’t have the baby eating bit, too.
I called the school and was told by the principal that it was a project by only one teacher and her class. I gave the usual arguments – that some of the children there might be witches or come to it later and think it’s something to hide, that it encourages Hate against an identifiable people – the standard issues for many minority groups. The poster was down the next day. The principal called me back to follow it up and told me that my complaint had made the teacher cry. Not my fault, of course, but it did point out that she knew that she had just not thought that through… Hallow’een is chock full of such negative images. It takes great patience to decide which ones are worth the effort to fight, and which ones to simply avoid…
My only necessary ritual for Samhain is getting dressed up in my full witch gear and give out candies to the goblins and fairies to sweeten the New Year. It’s also the only time I can wear my outfits without getting, say, stoned, in my little Bible Belt area.
I sometimes get out some pictures of my ancestors, put them on the kitchen table, and treat them like giests. That is, both ghosts and guests. I set places for them, or offer them refreshment, and have a chat with them. (Though I need a good vegan recipe for the traditional “soul cakes”[x]…) I tell them how my life is going, ask for advice, burn a few candles, like you would for a ritual or a nice dinner, and maybe spill some alcohol to drink on the ground outside. Pumpkin or turnip carving was originally sacrifice and ritual, as well as a light keeping away the malicious spirits and encouraging the benevolent ones to visit, so I like to have one out. I place potatoes and other harvest foods outside and on the table and other display areas. I also have a sickle, scythe, and other harvest objects that are integral parts of any displays. I also cook, play music, as I am also a professional Celtic musician, and do an ancient craft, like needlework or rugmaking. If you can’t get everything done on Hallow’s Eve, you still have two more days to celebrate! Like all pagan Holy Days, Samhain is a three day event, which starts on the Eve and ends on November 2. So I leave my altar and decor up the entire time.
Dress up and decorate as you wish, even if you don’t recognize Samhain as a sacred day, but please keep some sensitivity in mind. Hallow’een doesn’t give anyone a free pass to racism, sexism, or depictions of other people’s sacred objects in a secular manner. If it’s a costume party for you, then have fun! I’ll be in my medieval garb lighting incense, playing madrigals, and of course, handing out candy to the spirits disguised as children who come to my door…
[ii] The Haunted Boonslick: Ghosts, Ghouls and Monsters of Missouri’s Heartland
By Mary Barile, pg.58
[iii] “guest (n.) Old English gæst, giest “
“Geist (German pronunciation: [ˈɡaɪst]) is a German word. Depending on context it can be translated as the English words mind, spirit, or ghost, covering the semantic field of these three English nouns. Some English translators resort to using “spirit/mind” or “spirit (mind)” to help convey the meaning of the term”
Traditional Hagmena mummer’s begging song
To-night it is the New-year’s night, to-morrow is the day,
And we are come for our right, and for our ray,
As we used to do in old King Henry’s day.
Sing, fellows, sing, Hagman-heigh.
If you go to the bacon-flick, cut me a good bit;
Cut, cut and low, beware of your maw;
Cut, cut and round, beware of your thumb,
That me and my merry men may have some,
Sing, fellows, sing, Hagman-heigh.
If you go to the black-ark, bring me X mark;
Ten mark, ten pound, throw it down upon the ground,
That me and my merry men may have some.
Sing, fellows, sing, Hagman-heigh.
[viii] While missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, they branded the earlier religion’s supernatural deities as evil, and associated them with the devil. …
The effects of this policy were to diminish but not totally eradicate the beliefs in the traditional gods. Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted, while the church made deliberate attempts to define them as being not merely dangerous, but malicious. Followers of the old religion went into hiding and were branded as witches…. The Christian feast of All Saints was assigned to November 1st. The day honored every Christian saint, especially those that did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them. This feast day was meant to substitute for Samhain, to draw the devotion of the Celtic peoples, and, finally, to replace it forever. That did not happen, but the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status, becoming fairies or leprechauns of more recent traditions.” http://inventors.about.com/od/sstartinventions/a/Samhain.htm