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Wes Isley

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Between Scary and Silly: A Pagan Spiritual Reflection on Halloween

Posted: 11/03/10 03:18 PM ET

How was your Halloween? Did your costume scare the kids, and did you eat more candy than you should have? Maybe you ignored it completely, feeling the holiday too commercial, or worse still, too full of frightful monsters and ghoulish spirits. Personally, Halloween has always put me in a reflective mood. I'm certainly not the first to note how the falling leaves, cooler temps and dwindling sunlight remind us that nature is preparing to hibernate and the year drawing to a close. For me, this brief period before winter arrives also possesses a spiritual dimension (yes, pun intended). In all seriousness, however, I've found another way to view Halloween, something beyond both the spooky tricks and the commercial treats.

Halloween is celebrated in neo-pagan circles as a religious holiday and is known by the Gaelic word Samhain. Sure, go ahead, let your imagination run wild with bubbling cauldrons and Satanic altars. OK, with that out of your system, consider that what I'm describing isn't so out of the ordinary. This time of year was generally celebrated in the old Celtic world as the New Year, of bringing in one last harvest. Despite the use of "Samhain" as an evil code word in Hollywood horror films, it actually means "summer's end." Frankly, it makes sense. The squirrels in my yard are gathering their last harvest of acorns, and as plants die back and the trees drop their leaves, it feels as if something is coming to a close. Doesn't that seem more like the ending of one year and the beginning of another, more than the arbitrary dates of December 31 and January 1? What better time to take stock of one's life and plan for the next stage.

In neo-pagan practice, we try and orient ourselves to the cycles we experience in nature. The reasoning goes that if our part of the Earth is turning inward, we should take this as a signal to do the same. I see this as a spiritual exercise and not just a different take on New Year's resolutions. And this year, for the first time, I had the opportunity to mark Samhain with a group of like-minded individuals. We gathered outdoors under the stars and trees, around a crackling fire: Is there a better way to drink in the particular charms of the fall season? Each of us privately ran down our mental list of accomplishments from the past year as well as our failed attempts and mistakes. It's a humbling experience to look back in this way, instead of always looking forward as we do in our society. But we don't dwell on the past; it must be released. Next, we wrote down on a piece of paper one thing we wanted to release -- habits, relationships, hurtful words -- and tossed this into the fire, with the intention that it will transform us in the coming year into more loving people. It's a spiritual seed planted in the cooling Earth that will slowly take root and flower in the spring.

So what did I write on my scrap of paper? I wrote "control." As a control freak, I want it all to be perfect, and right now! You can imagine the unnecessary stress, pain and drama this causes. You'd think I'd know better by now, but we all have our lessons to learn. So I am working to release my controlling grip over life, other people and situations. As a result, I hope to be a better friend, partner, brother and son, and I hope to have a more positive impact among my colleagues and within my community.

If all that sounds painfully kumbayah for Halloween/Samhain, don't worry -- we do see dead people. OK, not exactly in the Haley Joel Osment sense, but most neo-pagans make a point to honor our ancestors, those who have passed on, at Samhain. Before you write me off completely, don't forget that honoring the dead at this time of the year is a common practice worldwide, even among Christians. There's All Saints' Day on Nov. 1, when Catholics recognize the spiritual over-achievers among us, followed by All Souls' Day, devoted to those who have died but might need extra help actually getting through the Pearly Gates. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, the living celebrate the dearly departed with graveyard visits and private ancestor altars on the Day of the Dead.

All this attention to death at this time of the year isn't a coincidence. It's simply a recognition of the natural cycles of life and, yes, death. Of course, go-getter Americans find death uncomfortable and scary. I admit that I'm still learning how to incorporate the honoring of ancestors into my spiritual practice. I guess I'm lucky in that I've haven't yet lost too many people in my life, just one or two friends but no one terribly close, and my grandparents died when I was young. But my experience is the exception, and it concerns me that when people close to me do begin to die, and they will, I'm not sure how I will handle it. I've been insulated from death, yet Samhain encourages me to face this difficult reality and make a place for it in my life.

When Halloween rolls around again in 2011, consider that all this attention to death has parallels in the season. Just as nature greets Samhain with a gentle release and quiet reflection, know that we can do the same. Halloween may be silly on the surface, but Samhain offers us the opportunity to face the deeper difficulties of life and death. When you've had your fill of candy corn and costumes, take a moment to step outside, look up at the stars and listen: A new year is beginning.