I know I covered this once before, but sometimes you need more details. A commenter asked if Halloween/Samhain isn’t October 31, as I had written, just when the hell is it?
Good question. Let’s try and sort this out.
Simply put, the difference between Halloween and Samhain is the way the date is chosen. Halloween is based on a fixed date on the calendar. Samhain, if you’re thinking of it in the traditional sense, is based on nature’s cycle, and when we try to reconcile the two ways of measuring time, it gets a bit messy.
Many of the traditions of Samhain, and Halloween too are date specific. They have to take place at the exact same time each year. You can’t measure that on a calendar.
Halloween is of course, October 31. It’s a holiday, not to be confused with a holy day. Holy days are days meant for reflection and celebrating in a pious way, holy events or people. A holiday is a day for businesses to make money and the rest of us to act all giddy.
Halloween got its start because of the proximity to a holy day, or holy days which began on November 1. Hence the name Halloween, short for All Hallows evening. November 1 is the feast of All Hallows or All Martyrs, the beginning of Allhallowtide, a time set aside for remembering the dead in Western Christianity. November 2 is All Souls Day, a day for remembering all the dead. In early Christianity it was commonplace for a vigil to be held the evening before a holy day, and so Halloween, a holy evening was born.
The original date for All Hallows was May 13. It was set with the dedication of the Parthenon in Rome, to supplant a Roman celebration of the dead. Around a hundred years later it was moved to November 1, the same date associated with Samhain.
By then, Samhain celebrations reflected in one way or another the traditions we associate with Halloween. It was the American influence which later tied up practices and beliefs of various cultures into a Hallmark package.
When the church grafted the holy day on top of these celebrations, it tied it together in a theological way to make Christian sense of pagan beliefs. Rather than force them to give up beliefs and practices, they instead give their beliefs a Christian origin story. They bet, rightly, that over time the masses would come to remember the Christian origin over the pagan. Hence the fact we have pagans holding celebrations during the vigil for a Christian martyr.
What the Church did was affix a seasonal holiday based on observation of nature, a fixed date on the calendar.
A common thread in early Samhain and Halloween beliefs is that on October 31, the veil between this world and next is at it’s thinnest. It was a relatively common belief that all the souls of those who had died during the year had to wait until this night to slip into the next world.
But as the veil was lifted, the long dead could slip back into this world as well, visiting people and places they knew in life.
Keep in mind that for the most part, these were illiterate, rural folk. Calendars weren’t on the wall to let people know it was October 31st. So how did they know the exact day? For the exact day would obviously be important, as the dead likely wouldn’t have an option for slipping into the next world on a Saturday because it was more convenient than on the year’s when the 31st fell on a Wednesday.
For dates, the ancients looked to the stars and the seasons. A cross quarter date is the day which falls halfway between an equinox and a solstice, and Halloween is roughly one of those. Computing these days would be relatively easy based on observations of the sun and stars, and it’s perfectly logical to believe that this cross quarter date, October 31, would be the Samhain that the ancients celebrated.
So it’s also logical to assume that this would be the evening when the veil between this world and the next would be lifted.
Except the year doesn’t last exactly 365 days, and so over time the calendar began to drift away from the actual seasons. So the calendar was adjusted, and leap year thrown in to keep things on an even keel. The result being that the day that the ancients celebrated as Samhain, the cross quarter holiday, now falls on or about November 7.
So if you’re wondering why you never get that visit from the dead on Halloween, it’s because you’re a week early.
At least. For things are never that simple when dealing with oral history.
The Pleiades is a constellation which is visible from the North Pole to the tip of Africa. Also known as the Seven Sisters for the seven stars most prominently visible, it’s nearly always there if you look for it. It was the first constellation I learned actually, as I had an ex with a patch of freckles on her inner thigh which reminded me of it.
The ancients, from Greece to South America venerated and sometimes feared the Pleiades. Some said that it was at this time that the ancient cataclysms occurred, as well as future ones, so it could be a time of fear and dread. Many cultures, including European cultures connected the constellation with the dead, and when they were overhead, the veil between the worlds was growing thinner.
On the night when they were directly overhead at midnight the veil was at its thinnest, and the dead could leave their graves and once more walk the earth. Sound familiar?
The Pleiades were directly overhead coincidently enough, about the same time as the cross quarter celebrations which we now equate with Halloween. In fact, for a couple hundred years before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, which we use now, October 31 found them at their highest point. Today it’s on or about the night of November 20/21.
So what’s the bottom line here? Just when is Halloween/Samhain? That depends on what you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for tricks or treats, celebrations, parties and lots of horror films on cable tv, then October 31 is perfect. If you want to move your party to the Saturday before that’s cool too. Oddly enough, people almost never have Halloween celebrations after October 31, though it would be closer to the true day.
If you’re looking for the time when the fabric holding the dead from the earth ripples open, then you have two choices. If your beliefs revolve around a seasonal viewpoint of creation, then November 7 is the day to break out the crystal ball.
If you take your cues from the stars, then no other time but the evening of November 20 will do.
Or you can do as the ancient pagans did, which likely was observed both the cross quarter and apex of the Seven Sisters on their celestial ride.
For my money, I buy into the Pleiades theory. The early Church specifically chose that date for All Hallows, which would divide the holiday of Samhain squarely in two as it would have peaked at midnight. In the Church’s way of thinking, they would be closing the door to the otherworld at midnight, as with the stroke of the clock it became a holy day. Right when the party was getting started.
Also, it’s a matter of what was simpler. We’re talking about rural celebrations here, often held by a semi nomadic people. Not everyone had their own Stonehenge to check for the precise date of the cross quarter. But they could look up to the stars and thanks to the Pleiades, come pretty darned close.