As we near October 31st, the debate surrounding the wheel of the year and when to celebrate Samhain starts to crop up. But what if I told you there’s more to it than seasonal timing? Both Beltane and Samhain are intrinsically connected, both see the veil between the worlds thinning, one (Beltane) is a celebrating of life and birth, the other (Samhain) is a celebration of death and spirit. What gets forgotten in the white, neo pagan debate is that there are other holidays which fall in this time period, and I’m not talking about Melbourne Cup Day.
Day of the Dead (South America), Fet Gede (Haiti and New Orleans), All Souls Day (Catholic), and All Saints Day (Catholic) all fall at the end of October and the start of November. In fact, some South American countries see November as the start of ancestor veneration and May as the end, this is important to note as the majority of South America is in the Southern Hemisphere. The reality is that this time of the year has nothing to do with the season and very thing to do with honouring the dead. This is why it can be so challenging to kick the Halloween spirit and swap it for fertility and life, because the whole world is venerating ancestors and saints.
The suggestion, as some have made, that putting up Halloween decorations in October is wrong and shows a lack of education is only telling half the story. This idea ignores the various culture which venerate the dead, and seriously others people of colour and orthodox Catholics. I’m sure there are some readers here I need to remind that if you have Irish and/or Scottish heritage then your ancestors were most likely Catholics. Same for the Italians, Greeks, Romani… anyone from the Mediterranean. Gosh, even the French. Anyone who is something other than British practiced some form of ancestor veneration historically.
“Pagan” traditions, like baking Soul Cakes, can be tied to Catholic traditions. It is commonly believed amongst many cultures that wearing masks or covering the head protect the living from being recognised by the dead. Dumb Suppers and feeding the dead are also common traditions across all the aforementioned holidays, not just Samhain. Leaving food outside the house was believed to prevent lost or wandering souls from entering the home. The reality is that the only part of Halloween which is seasonal are the pumpkins and apples, which can easily be replaced with fresh flowers, wreaths and candles or lanterns.
While I have endeavoured to keep this piece educational, the reality is that ignoring the prominence of celebrating the dead at this time of the year comes from a place of white culture, British culture, and colonial culture being over privileged. When we look closer to home, it was common practice for Papua New Guinea natives to bury the bones of a deceased relative under their home to provide protection, which is very similar to the practice of Bolivian natives to keep the skulls of deceased family as protection. This varies strongly with the Aboriginal practice of not speaking a deceased persons name or keep their photo as they believe it disturbs their spirit. This is one of the reasons historical post mortem decapitation of Aboriginal peoples (outside of correctly performed autopsies) is especially disrespectful. I’m a world where there is so much access to diverse and multicultural information, the exclusion of “Other” practice, traditions and culture is equally as racist as disparaging a race. The othering of cultural practices is just another way of keeping the white over privileged (here as neo/new age pagans) and asserting the status quo.
So this October 31st, as you celebrate Beltane, do not seek to other those who are crowning skulls, baking soul cakes, divining in cemeteries or wearing head coverings and masks. Seek to rethink why you aren’t venerating your, probably Catholic, ancestors.