Top: Crescent moon over a male stone of West Kennet Avenue, Avebury
The historical record is in this case, a record of people looking at the historical record and not finding much. They find harvest celebrations around the end of October, but that would be case, wouldn’t it? There’s enough archaeological and folklore facts to make the case that these festivals also included fire and the idea that during this time, the bridge between this world and the after life is open. You find some general agreement about these festivals throughout the ancient Celtic world.
Their timing appeared to be halfway between the summer solstice and the winter equinox, making this a seasonal celebration to Pagans, one of the four based on the old Gaelic calendar. But without some celestial marker, it’s hard to accept that there was a universal date and time for Samhain.
Alignments in Irish neolithic tombs that capture the sunrise attest that from the earliest days, this was an important time in their calendar. These early cultures were agricultural societies, and though this time of year is of course the harvest – it’s not particularly important otherwise to the farmer. That said, it could have great importance to the herdsman as time was running out to have your animals in shelter for the winter.
It would make sense that for ancient peoples, time was best managed in tasks, like the harvest, rather than fixed dates determined by stars and the position of the sun. In this way, the crops and the animals would speak to them as well as the sky about where the earth was in its cycle. Try as we might, we’ve never been able to completely fix the sky to our human calendar. It’s impossible to miss their influence, but I can’t help but believe that to an ancient people, they put more stock in the things of this earth, that their survival depended upon. And from that, they found the primary source of their magic.
Besides, by the time people were starting to compile calendars, there was nobody alive to read the alignments of neolithic passage tombs, that knowledge long since forgotten. We know from watching the history of Christianity, beliefs change, whether it’s about a Hebrew god or the influence of the planets on the people of the earth.
The nuances of nature would have made for appropriate, and reliable deities and oracles. So dates would likely have been fluid, based on how quickly crops came to maturity, the weather over the summer and the weather at harvest.
In Ireland, these festivals went on for a week – three days before and three days after. Perhaps this was a way to be sure you got the magic moment during the celebration. Or perhaps, it was never meant to be thought of as a single day.
Why is this important? That’s simple. Halloween is a day, or to be precise, an evening. When the church moved All Hallows from November 2 to November 1, it was with the express intent of shutting down the ancient celebrations which they still viewed as pagan, at midnight on October 31. At midnight, it became a holy day.
That’s Halloween. Samhain is the ancient festival whose memory inspired it, through folk customs passed down from generation to generation, carried from one land to another, mixed and intermingled, where people still acted out the old rituals, even if they no longer remembered the meaning behind them, or even timed them to the stars, but instead, the calendar.
So for those still hung about up about people having Halloween parties on days other than October 31, you can let it go. It’s entirely reasonable to think that it was the whole cycle of the moon which marked the festivities. Halloween today is for the living, it’s a fun holiday, no boring family traditions to deal with, no long travels for a dinner.
And what of your Samhain rituals held on these adjacent days to this most of holy of holidays to Pagans and Wiccans? Well, if you discount any celestial influence, any specific signs of nature that the time is upon us, then you’re fine. You can take solace in the idea that for this entire cycle of the moon, the dead walked among us, and it was easier to cross to the other side if that was your wish.
You have to keep in mind though, that if the ancients chose a time because it had magical significance to them, then to ignore that is to ignore the magical foundation of the holiday. They were convinced of the significance of a particular date, that they spent thousand of hours constructing tombs to reflect his belief. We’re talking about a moment where the veil between the two worlds was thinnest. I can’t help but think time was important, even the hour. After all, it’s our only holiday dedicated to necromancy.
Because that’s the dark side of the Samain/Halloween coin. It’s not all about making merry and bringing in the light.
Some Pagans celebrate it on the exact midway point between the solstice and the equinox, and to me, that makes sense. The ancients didn’t have a calendar, but they did have a sky. And as we moved from clan based agricultural societies to communities, towns and cities, dates which could be marked by universal fixed events in the sky became more relevant.
The date of October 31 itself was rendered obsolete by tinkering with the calendar, so that now the original day in time that would have been October 31 is November 7. If you had looked to the stars in ancient times, you would have seen the Pleiades directly overhead at midnight the last day of October, which very well could have been the sign people were looking for. That date is now November 21.
The apex of the journey of the Pleiades was the exact moment, the early church chose to end the party. So that could be the magic hour as well.
And why should anyone care what the ancients thought about the veil between the two worlds being thinner at this time? The ancients had a very different outlook on death than we do, and life as well. Science had yet to throw water on their beliefs, so they developed a finer since of instinct than we have now. They saw what they saw, and didn’t have to worry whether what they saw was real or not. If they saw it, it was real. And they dealt with death personally, without having the ugly bits shielded from their eyes. In short, they knew more about the subject than we do.
Halloween is a fun time of year, a chance to dabble in scares for a day, to disguise yourself in costume and run amok. Samhain as practiced by many pagans is little more than that, a gathering, a celebration and a recognition that this time is important.
To others, it’s still a chance to test the thickness of the veil, to see who wants to come across, or to slip over to the other side themselves. Just be back before the curtain closes.