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The Meaning of Halloween

 Halloween Trick or Treater 

Witches celebrate eight festivals each year, known as sabbats, which coincide with the changes in the seasons. The solstices (December 21 and June 21) mark the days when winter and summer, respectively, begin. The spring and fall equinoxes (March 21 and September 23) mark the two days of the year when the hours of the day are equally divided between day and night. These four days were very important to ancient agricultural societies and were occasions for great celebrations.

The four other sabbats are known as cross-quarter days and represent festivals that were important to herding societies: Candlemas on February 2; Beltane on May 1; Lughnasad on August 1; and Samhain, or Halloween, on October 31. Of the four cross-quarter days, Halloween is probably best known by nonpagans. In herding societies, Halloween marks the new year. It signifies the time of year when herdsmen thinned out their livestock for the winter, killing for their meat those animals that looked as if they wouldn’t survive the colder weather. Thus, Halloween is the Witch’s new year.

Halloween also marks the late harvest—the time of year when vegetation dies off and days grow shorter and darker.

“Halloween is the time when we are going into the dark,” says Antiga, a Minneapolis Witch, “and one thing about Witchcraft is that darkness is not necessarily associated with evil. The seed lies in darkness under the earth and is quiet all winter before it comes to life in the spring. In societies not as industrial as ours, people rested during the dark. It’s a whole different energy in the winter than in the summer.

“According to pagan legend, Halloween is also the time when the veil between the two worlds, the world of the dead and the living, is thought to be the thinnest. The reason people dressed up on Halloween was that they thought the spirits were all around them, and they were afraid the spirits might take them along with them. The people dressed up as spirits so the [visiting] spirits would think they too were spirits and wouldn’t take them to the world of the dead.”

Excerpted from the Twin Cities Reader (Oct. 30, 1985) and reprinted in Utne Reader (Oct./Nov. 1986). 

Image: A Halloween trick-or-treater in Redford, Michigan, 1979. Photo by Don Scarbrough, licensed under Creative Commons.