This post is a departure from what I usually write on this blog, and it falls under the general category of “things I am communicating about my childhood in Wicca that may be useful to adults right now.” My goal for this post is to give people, regardless of their religion, some ideas of how to celebrate Halloween when they are disappointed about COVID-19 and the cancellation of so many fun things about Halloween — the costume parties, the trick-or-treating, and the spooky camaraderie in the pop culture version of the holiday. (I had no idea until reading the mournful “Halloween in COVID-19” news stories and think pieces that many people who grew up on the Coasts associate Halloween with partying. I’d just thought that was a college student thing, and I stand corrected.)
Good news: Halloween is a sanitized and commercialized amalgam of religious and cultural observances, many of which are based in the home and relatively easy to do while social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. (Note: There are some significant differences between Halloween and Day of the Dead despite their many similarities, so please be aware of that and be mindful of cultural appropriation.)
When my family started attending and participating in non-initiatory Wiccan Circles, I was in middle school, and it meant that Halloween changed for my family. The Samhain celebration was usually held on October 31 at something like 7:30 PM (hey, I was a kid, what is time?), and trick-or-treating started at 4:30 PM or so. Circle was a 45-minute drive away, so it usually meant that we had at most an hour of trick-or-treating before we went to Circle, and we didn’t pass out much candy because we weren’t home for the bulk of trick-or-treaters. As my sisters grew up (they were 8 and 6 when I was 13, FYI), the trick-or-treating times shortened, and Circle grew more important.
What exactly was the Samhain Circle like? It was focused on honoring the dead. The structure of the religious rites for each of the eight major holy days (spaced every six weeks or so) went something like this:
- Procession to the ritual space, usually with torches
- Cleansing and creation of sacred space
- Casting of the circle/invocation of the elements
- Invocation of the Goddess, God, and Spirit
- Background info on the holiday being celebrated
- Main content of the holiday
- Cakes and ale (food blessed by the Gods)
- Sometimes other types of content
- Thank-you to the Goddess, God, and Spirit
- Thank-you to the elements
- Opening the circle
- Procession away from the space
- Potluck, dancing, and fun
During Samhain, the main ritual content focused on remembering the dead. The potluck focused on foods that our dearly departed used to love as a way of honoring those who had passed. The decorations/aesthetic were very American Traditional Halloween, such as pumpkins or gourds, ghosts and reapers, lots of black and orange, and brightly-colored leaf wreaths. Many people wore black because it is a mourning color.
As a child, I had very little contact with death until my grandparents died; even then, the grandparents who died first were my dad’s parents, and I didn’t know them that well because they didn’t interact with us as much as my maternal grandparents did.
Regardless of one’s background — Wicca, a revivalist polytheism, eclecticism, Buddhism, indigenous religions, and so on — very few religions forbid ancestor offerings and veneration, and a simple celebration of one’s departed (relatives, people significant to a person, and so on) is a great way to honor the spirit of the holiday and make it special even though children can’t go trick-or-treating and adults cannot congregate in large celebratory groups this year. Cooking foods that have a special family meaning, taking a trip to graves if one can, dusting off the family photos and lighting a candle, and engaging in discussions about the messy relationship between us and deceased people who made us who we are.
Making special offerings to Gods associated with death and the departed is also an idea that may be appropriate, depending on context. For instance, I rarely do such offerings on October 31. Since I worship the Hellenic Gods, I honor underworld Gods during the Anthesteria festival in late winter. (I can’t give exact dates because the lunar calendar oscillates relative to the solar year.) Also, I tend to give Persephone a special offering on the Autumnal Equinox, not on Halloween.
That said, I want to reiterate that ancestor veneration is not entertainment (unlike trick-or-treating and parties). It’s a solemn undertaking even though it may have its lighthearted moments, much like other practices surrounding death, dying, and the dead — it’s like bringing a remembrance ceremony or “celebration of a life” into one’s home. You may discover after doing it once that it’s a good addition to your celebrations in future years, as many of us can feel guilty that we can’t visit graves due to distance or that we never saw our grandparents or parents enough before they passed away, regardless of how complicated our family experience is.
What I do now — because I am not Wiccan — is a small ancestor offering, typically lighting a candle and giving some kind of alcohol, often mead. I dispose of the alcohol later and don’t drink any of it. Drink offerings to the dead in Hellenic Polytheism are not shared with the living, and even though this specific Halloween observance is a blend of the ritual I grew up with, American culture, and the structure of a khoe libation in Hellenism, I adapted these ritual prohibitions into my American polytheism. The late winter Anthesteria festival that I mentioned earlier involves honoring the dead, and I do something a bit more special at that time — for example, one year I started opening my grandfather’s World War II letters. This Halloween/Samhain, I have an invitation to my mom’s Zoom ritual, as her coven sometimes allows family members to attend their rituals.