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Samhain: A Festival of the Dead
The theme of the 'festival of the dead' is found in nearly all cultures except our American culture; Americans celebrate Halloween, but this is just a shadow of the original festival held at the end of October: Samhain. On an agricultural level, Samhain (pronounced 'sow-en') heralds the end of the harvest and the beginning of the long winter months, but at its most powerful level, Samhain is a festival to honor those who have gone before us into Summerland. It is a time of great joy, not mourning, because we know that our deceased loved ones aren't lost to us, but merely transfigured. Samhain is the time to celebrate that transfigurement.
Traditional ways to honor the dead include putting out extra place settings, complete with our loved ones' favorite foods; giving gifts that remind us of the dead, such as skeleton-shaped candies & cookies; and in some areas, leading a raucous parade througth the cemetary, and inviting dead family and friends to join in the fun. Decorations include the colors associated with Saturn, the God of the Underworld, which are black and orange, and it is also appropriate to display fruits of the recent harvest, such as corn, winter squashes, and hay.
The traditional Halloween Jack o' Lantern originates in the fetishes made by households to ward off any evil spirits which might accidentally be invited along with the beloved spirits; carving frightening faces and terrible images into pumpkins, gourds, and other items was a way to repel those spirits which were up to no good.
Divination and channeling are also closely associated with Samhain. The veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest on Samhain, and it is the best time to contact spirits and perform divinations for the upcoming year.
For many witches, Samhain is also a 'New Year's' celebration; the Celtic New Year began on the day following Samhain, and many pagans still honor this day. Of course, we have been accused of doing 'anything for a good party,' and having New Year twice in one year is certainly better than having it only once! I've even been known to celebrate the Chinese New Year, too!
Samhain is the most widely celebrated Pagan holidays; those who miss other Sabbats usually find a way to celebrate this sacred occasion. While Samhain is sacred, keep in mind that Wicca and many othe Pagan religions believe in celebrating the sacred in a happy, joyous way, not in a dreary, suppressed way. Have fun on Samhain, and remember to invite your dead loved ones for the fun, too!