This year will be my first time to celebrate Samhain as a Pagan. From what I can gather, Samhain seems to be a particularly significant Sabbat. In fact, it seems to me that more Pagans place a particular emphasis on Samhain, maybe even more than Beltane. So I thought I’d write down my current thoughts on this festival.
From what I can tell, out of all the eight Sabbats, Samhain is the only one that isn’t all joy and happiness – it has a dark, sombre side too. It’s very much a time for remembering the dead – both our ancestors who have long passed, and those who we have known and loved in our lives who are no longer with us. Some Pagans also recognise Samhain as the death of the Great God, until his re-birth at Yule. This gives Samhain a particularly strong feeling of solemnity and gravity that isn’t so apparent in the other seven Sabbats.
But this doesn’t mean that Samhain is only a time of mourning and sorrow. Like the other Sabbats, Samhain is a celebration – a celebration of our departed friends and family, of the changing of the seasons, and of the thinning of the veil between this world and the spirit world.
What’s more, Samhain is now more familiar to modern Brits as Halloween – a time associated with parties, costumes, eating sweets and enjoying spooky and horror-themed festivities of all kinds. And from my experience, Pagans still enjoy this more frivolous side to Halloween as well. I don’t think many Pagans have problems in celebrating both the dignified, spiritual side of Samhain together with the fun and festivities of Halloween. Certainly I don’t! Although I wasn’t able to attend my moot Medway Pagans’ Samhain festival (it coincided with my sister’s birthday meal), I do plan to hold some sort of ritual for Samhain in order to honour the spirits, my ancestors and departed friends and family. But as well as this, my husband and I have just returned from 2.8 Hours Later, an entertaining “zombie survival” experience (not bad but Zed Event’s “Shopping Mall” zombie experience was way better value for money in my opinion!), and we’re also planning on going to see the new vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows tomorrow. So I think we’ll get the mix of Samhain spirituality with Halloween horror-fun down pretty well!
This mixture of deep spirituality and light-hearted fun surrounding Samhain reminds me very much of the similar Buddhist O-bon festival in Japan. Celebrated in summer, O-bon festivals vary from place to place in Japan, but where I lived in Japan (Nagasaki), it was a pretty big event, the climax being the “Shoro Nagashi” or “Spirit Boat Parade.” At sunset, families all over Nagasaki would carry enormous boat-shaped floats covered with lanterns through the town, all the while throwing firecrackers as a way of welcoming the spirits of the dead. The whole occasion is held very much like any other Japanese festival, with plenty of stalls selling great food, games to play, and people dressed in bright yukata robes. It’s considered a fun festival, yet at the same time it is tinged with sadness, as it’s the time for families to remember their departed members.
In fact, while the idea of mixing both grief with joy when remembering the dead is rather strange in predominately Christian cultures like Britain, it’s fairly widespread elsewhere. Just think of the Mexican Day of the Dead, with its bright, garish colours.
I think that it’s great that the modern Pagan interpretation of Samhain can be celebrated both with solemnity and frivolity at the same time. It’s yet another wise Pagan reminder that all change, even the most difficult change, can still be celebrated in its own way, and that the darker sides to life do not need to be faced with dread.