Link to this Article: http://www.llewellyn.com/encyclopedia/article/3110
Happy New Year!
This article was written by Natalie Harter on October 06, 2004
posted under Halloween
We’ve all heard that the ancient Celts regarded October 31, or Samhain (pronounced sow-when), as the beginning of the New Year. Now, why would this be so when days are still getting shorter, and the dark part of the year has not yet ended? The most likely reason is because this time of year had so much to do with death, and after death, there must always be rebirth.
Samhain was the final harvest of the year — the meat harvest. The fields and plants had already been cleared and stored, and most families could only afford to keep a few animals fed and warm throughout the winter. So the slaughtering began. A bloody time, to be sure, but it was also a time of abundance and celebration, as the families feasted on the food that was not salted, smoked or stored away.
Because of these traditions, Samhain was also a time to reflect on the transience of life. It would be difficult not to think of death as you watched or took part in the slaughtering of the herds. It would also be difficult not to think about how life depends upon death, as the cut crops and butchered meat were fed to the families through the cold winters. This heightened awareness of life’s cyclical nature brought with it a reverence for ancestors of all kinds. We can maintain that reverence now by thinking of our ancestors at Samhain — the ancestor plants and animals that feed our bodies, and our human ancestors, who feed our souls.
Many individuals today practice vegetarianism in an effort to reduce the killing of other creatures. This is a noble ideal to be sure, especially considering the way in which so many animals are treated in modern systems of farming. If you are a vegetarian, you may find the idea of a meat harvest distasteful or even irrelevant to your personal practice. However, we all must remember that all life depends upon the taking of other lives, be they plant or animal. Whether you’re an herbivore or omnivore, take time at Samhain to be reverent of the plants and animals that sustain you.
Associating this time of year with death is not merely a Celtic phenomenon. Nearly all cultures in the Northern Hemisphere do the same, as it is difficult to witness the waning days and not reflect on such things. Catholics celebrate All Soul’s Day, and El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated in Mexico. Both days are opportunities for the community to come together in order to remember and celebrate the dead.
"Celebration" is not a word we often associate with death, but death, and the dying time of year, need not be depressingly morbid. Take the Day of the Dead as an example, where communities gather in graveyards to honor their ancestors and partake in a feast of color and light. Children play in the graveyard at night, and candies and toys abound in the shapes of skeletons and skulls.
While this may seem strange to many Americans, who typically do all they can to protect their children from the specter of death (take the all-too-common explanation that "the dog went to go live on a farm" as a point of reference), it really makes a lot of sense. Death is a universal experience; it is one of the very few things that happens to each and every one of us. When you think about how you’d like to be honored after you’re gone, wouldn’t you prefer some company and a big party to tears and avoidance?
Oddly enough, although we find the mixture of children, death and fun an incredibly odd one, that’s exactly what our modern Halloween is all about. Children (and sometimes adults) dress up in the image of ghosts and ghouls, run around scaring each other "to death," and then laugh about it and feast on candy. It is in our nature "play with death" in such a way.
Please note that the use of Llewellyn Encyclopedia articles
is subject to certain Terms and Conditions