Halloween is one of the great quarter-days or pagan festivals that fall midway between the solstices and the equinoxes. That makes it an agricultural festival—it marks the time of the last harvest, the winter slaughter, the death of the crops and the rest cycle of the land.
The Saxons called it Winter's Eve. The Celts called it Samhain, which is usually translated as "summer's end." To the Celts, the day began with nightfall. Thus it was natural for the year to begin at the start of the darkest time of the year. Celtic feasts were celebrated from sunset to sunset, so Samhain began at sunset on October 31 and continued until sunset November 1.
As with other great pagan holidays, the Catholic Church found a way to claim it. The Feast of All Saints, which came into existence in the seventh century, was commemorated on November 1 under the name of All Hallows Day, from which we get the name Halloween (the eve of Hallows). The following day, November 2, is All Souls Day, a day when the priest wears black, the church is draped with mourning, and the faithful pray for the souls of their departed, with the hope of shortening their time in Purgatory.
The Month of Blood
There are some obvious reasons why this place on the Wheel of the Year is associated with death. The sun is approaching its nadir, the leaves are falling from trees, the death and decay in the natural world remind us of our own mortality. Martinmas, November 11, was the traditional time for slaughtering the cattle, sheep and pigs that could not be cared for during the winter. The Welsh called November the month of Slaughter while the Saxons called it the Month of Blood.
In "The Odyssey," Odysseus summons the shades of the dead by sacrificing animals. Their blood drains into a pit, and the restless shades come eagerly crowing up from the underworld. Odysseus holds them at bay with his sword until the particular spirit he wants comes forward, laps up the blood, and then prophesies what will happen in the future. This scene combines the themes of fear, slaughter, death, the Underworld, ghosts, and divination which are common to Halloween.
The Days of the Dead
In Mexico, All Souls Day is called Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and is a time of commemorating the dead by decorating their tombs (with marigolds, a flower sacred to the Aztecs) and inviting them to a feast in their honor. Families go to the cemetery for a picnic and eat skeleton cookies and sugar skull cakes.
Trick-or-treating derives from an ancient British custom of going from house to house begging for soul-cakes. Some say the soul-cakes were given to the priest to buy Masses for the souls of relatives in Purgatory. Others believe they were offerings to the dead. Candles flickering in the windows (or pumpkins) were meant to serve as beacons for the dead, just as on the similar holiday in Japan, lanterns are hung by the garden gates.
Decorating for this holy day is easy since there are so many items available for Halloween that will set the proper tone of mortality: autumn leaves, skeletons, miniature coffins, skulls, tombstones, pumpkins carved with terrifying faces, black candles. Every year I make a pilgrimage to the Folk Art Gallery-La Tienda at 4138 University Way NE in Seattle, which carries a selection of calaveras, macabre little skeleton figures doing wonderfully unlikely things like getting married and playing in a rock-and-roll band. We buy one each year to add to our Dia de Muertos altar.
Pumpkins, apples and nuts are harvested at this time of the year and are associated with various Halloween customs. After the apple harvest, it's time to make wassail, a drink of hard apple cider (or soft apple juice), heated with spices and with whole apples floating on top. When the apples are heated enough they burst and make a froth on the top of the wassail.
While you enjoy the fruits of the harvest, you can honor their source by wassailing the trees. Go out to the trees that have shared their bounty with you and thank them, drink a toast and pour a libation on their roots.
For a dramatic but simple Halloween ritual I recommend this piece of the long and beautiful Samhain ritual described by Starhawk in "The Spiral Dance." Light candles in a dark room. Take a pomegranate and hold it up saying, "Behold, the fruit of life —" Put it down on a plate and cut it open with a knife, saying "— which is death." The ruby-red juice of the pomegranate will look like blood in the candlelight. Then hold up an especially shiny red apple — one that reminds you of the apple the stepmother gave Snow White — and say "Behold the fruit of death —" Put it down and slice it open horizontally rather than vertically. Hold it up so others can see the five-pointed star made by the seeds and say "— which is life." Cut up the rest of the apple and feed it to each other or use it for one of the forms of divination described below.
Honoring the Dead
There are many ways you can honor the dead, starting with the simple act of setting out food for them. While you're at home and can properly supervise, place lighted candles in the windows to serve as beacons for the spirits.
Host a Feast of the Dead. Set a place at the table for the dead and offer them servings of the food you eat. Invite departed friend and relatives, ancestors, and heroines. Ask the living participants to share a memory about someone who has died who was important to them. Light a candle or ring a bell for each person after you speak about them. In "Feeding the Spirit," Cunningham suggests a variation of a Shinto tradition: Cut out or draw pictures of things the dead would like. Then burn them in the fire (or candle flame), saying something like, “George, I am sending you new clothes for your journey in the spirit world.’
You can also make an altar for your ancestors. Our family has a Dia de Muertos altar that my daughter began in elementary school. Each year we set it up, decorate it with marigolds and add new objects: a milkbone for a dead dog, sunflower seeds for a dead hamster, pizza for a dead grandfather. Z Budapest in "Grandmother of Time" suggests putting pictures of your departed relatives in the middle of the altar, burning white and yellow devotional candles and incense, and talking to them. If you feel uncomfortable talking out loud, write letters. You can burn these too and imagine the smoke carrying your message.