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Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead: Transition and Transformation

October 29, 2014
Passage To The Seven Insides by John Crawford

Passage to the Seven Insides by John C Crawford

The shortening days, the turning leaves, the parade of storms marching across my landscape the last two weeks, all tell me it’s time again for the fires of the New Year and the Three Nights of Summer’s End. Our modern Halloween stems from the Celtic Samhain [pronounced SOW-in (Ireland), SOW-een (Wales) or SAV-en (Scotland)]. In the Northern Hemisphere, it marks the end of the harvest, the end of the external part of the year. After this celebration it will be time to begin the journey inward, time to gathering by the fire to tell stories through the dark and cold ahead.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much relationship between our current way of celebrating Halloween and the ancient roots of Samhain and other fire/end of harvest festivals celebrated around the world. After all, what do bare branches of trees, dried out cornstalks, bonfires burning on the hills have to do with cobwebs, ghosts, skeletons, and witches on broomsticks? The traditional symbols associated with this holiday all have to do with a transition from life to death. The three days from Oct. 31 – Nov. 2 mark a time that we humans have chosen to celebrate our beliefs in the continuation of spirit after it disconnects from physical form.

Many of our ancestors marked this time as the end of the old year, the beginning of the new. It is a sacred time, when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thin as a breath, permeable as a wisp of fog. It is a time that the dead can walk with us and warm themselves at our hearths. It is also the time when some mortals, especially shamans and poets, are able to find entrance to the Otherworld through special doorways that open only at Samhain.

The holiday has new meaning for me this year. When I set a plate for my ancestors at the table, there will be a special one for my mother who, after an arduous journey, found the door to the Otherworld a few weeks ago. She was the last of her generation in my family, so I am Elder now. A sobering thought.

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The rain soaked meadow squeals with new-green as I cross to the forest path, thoughts of ancestors and elders sitting on my shoulders like a chain mail cloak. I have a Samhain question for the Fairy elders who guide me: Why does this year’s road to Hallowe’en feel like uncharted territory?

The Fairies are kind – they hide their snickers in dripping moss. “Of course it feels different,” whispers the wind, breathing on fir fronds above me. The voice settles closer to my ear, a subtle thrumming through the tree bark. “There is no embodied spirit of your blood line buffering the space between you and the veil; there are no footsteps for you to follow. That may seem frightening to your body-mind but your spirit now has no barrier to crossing the veil when it’s thin enough to penetrate.”

“So my mother’s spirit, while still in her body, was keeping me from communicating as fully as I wanted with you? With anyone on the other side? Why?”

“We think it’s an instinctual impulse. The spirit/mind of any living adult in the generation before you will seek to protect you from straying too close to the veil. That’s especially true in your culture where there is such misinformation – and, therefore, fear – about the crossing to the other side. It’s a little like making sure a child doesn’t get too close to the river – especially if the adult doesn’t know how to swim.”

The words are simple but they trigger an opening in me I wasn’t expecting. I stare at the moss my body sits on, letting the meaning sift down through layers of understanding like the rain settling down through the soil. Just as I wonder how deep this information will penetrate, a salamander walks into my field of vision and holds my gaze. “That’s enough now,” it seems to say. “Let it soak in slowly.”

“What should I do differently this Samhain?” I ask the wind, the tree, the salamander.

“Nothing,” comes the response. “Do the rituals as you’ve always done them but pay attention – you may experience them anew. And if you decide to dress as a Wise Woman, an Elder, it won’t be a costume.“ A blue jay squawks overhead and they are gone.

Spirit speaking through the fire

Spirit speaking through the fire

So I will light the fire, feed it dried corn stocks and other debris from this year of my life. I will set a feast for the ancestors, with a special plate for my mother, and welcome them all to my table. Then I will listen for their messages, celebrate their lives, and ask them to continue to celebrate mine. Perhaps I will ask them about what it means for a spirit to embody form – or how I embody my dreams, my fears, my love, my joy.

When the feast is over and the fire has gone out, I will clean the hearth and light a new fire, beginning the new year, stepping into the cycle again. The end is in the beginning, my Fairy guides remind me; the beginning, in the end.

— © Bridget Wolfe, 2014

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2014 1:19 pm

    A beautiful exploration of Samhain. I’m sorry for the loss of your mother.

  2. Joanie permalink
    April 22, 2015 7:19 pm

    For more than three years I have been searching for this answer? explanation? reason.. I could only describe it as feeling completely and utterly alone and knowing it would be so until I die. I have folded myself into myself as if wrapped in a velvet cape lined with thorns to keep the chill of the other side at bay if only for awhile. Now I know it is ok to peek without fear. Thank you-Blessed Be.

    • April 22, 2015 10:02 pm

      Thank you, Joanie, for reading and responding in such a deep and meaningful way. I have had the privilege of sitting with someone in transition three times in my life; each experience was a gift and taught me a little more about love and grace. The web of life extends beyond this realm, I am sure. The fear is only the natural response of the physical body and the identity it’s created for itself in this realm wanting to hold on to the known. The velvet cape is lovely, the thorns, unnecessary. They serve only to inflict pain and throw up roadblocks to the next leg of the journey. Thank you for peeking out. I think you’ll find the journeymuch easier, even filled with joy, without the fear. Be well, my sister and Blessed Be.

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