Retelling the Story
This is my favorite time of year, period. There is really nothing that can compare. Sure, there is a warmth in Christmas and Yule traditions, there is the freshness of Easter and Spring, and the freedom of Summer are near and dear, but something about Autumn — something about Halloween, Samhain — just lets my innermost self melt away into the rhythm and flow of these days.
It’s a wholly internal experience — a feeling of coming home to myself. Halloween, and in my family, Samhain, was always full of anticipation, excitement, and an eagerness to participate. I never much cared for the actual act of finding a costume, putting a lot of thought into it, and showing it off — there’s nothing wrong in that, it just wasn’t for me.
I always appreciated seeing the talent and inspiration of others rather than put in the effort myself. Perhaps I was just lazy. The real joy for me in Halloween as a child was in being the most efficient and quick trick or treater you’ve ever seen, running between homes, hoping my friends could keep up, covering as much ground as possible, so I could get to the important work — bringing the candy home.
Each year I would devise a quicker route, a way to speed things up, houses to skip — such as the houses that handed out religious pamphlets each year — and every time I’d return home I would dump the candy out and instead of diving right in, I would organize it so very carefully and catalog it.
I would write down exactly how much I got of each item, how it ranked in terms of my favorites, and I would marvel at the neat little piles in front of me. I don’t do this anymore, but it is no wonder I ended up working in a library for nearly a decade. I wanted things to be as orderly as possible, and really, the odd logic behind my actions, I wanted the candy to last as long as possible.
Whether you did something similar to this, I bet there is some other area of your life where perfection and order were awkward but automatic goals. Human beings are fascinating creatures in that we love to bring order to the silliest of things. In my case, it was Halloween candy.
While my cataloging of candy is a thing of the past, I still hold on to the other special memories of learning, celebrating, and diving deeper into the richness of Halloween. While the candy is still great, the day holds a special significance to me that goes beyond chocolate, swedish fish, and cataloging my candy.
And so, today, in many pagan and celtic traditions, we are celebrating the second half of Samhain — which like Rosh Hoshanah to the Jews is the beginning of the spiritual New Year in pagan traditions.
Bonfires were lit, rituals to honor one’s ancestors were performed, home altars were made, spells for the protection against evil were cast, and several other expressions of this festival as old as culture itself were carried out.
I like to imagine bonfires dotting the landscape all across the Northern Hemisphere, knowing that people were dancing and rejoicing, and leaning in to that ecstatic feeling of believing the veil between our world and the Other World is paper thin and permeable.
I know the celebration of this sabbath was not as grandiose as I like to imagine, but I rest comfortable knowing that remnants of the old ways are, at least for now, very much still a part of our culture — namely as Halloween. I know I was visited by ghouls, ghosts, witches, the avengers, zombies, ewoks, and other sundry costumed kids — certainly not my ancestors, but still colorful and a part of one of my favorite times of year.
Whether or not one actually believes that the veil between worlds is at its thinnest on Samhain, whether or not one believes our ancestors can reach through one world to the next, there is a message to such celebrations and remembrances.
There is a very good reason why multiple cultures have celebrated some version of Samhain for thousands of years. Of course it began as a way to mark the complete end of summer, the time to finish our harvests, and to prepare for winter. But beyond that, there is something intrinsically reflective about fall and the celebrations of old that mark the season.
There is a melancholy to this season, which the British poet Robert Browning once summed up best, “Autumn wins you best by this, its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay.” As the world around us turns and changes it is clear that summer is so completely gone for now, how can we not turn our minds to our lost loved ones, our own mortality, and the experiences of the past that shape us?
I believe the power of Samhain for all people, pagan or not, is in remembering that we are a part of a story that retells itself every year and a more personal story that connects us with the past. I cannot help but notice that the pagan spiritual new year starts, in part, with a reflection on mortality. There is something beautiful in that.
Something that embraces our limited time on this Earth and reminds us that with each year it is more limited, more precious, and that we are here in this moment because of the lives that have gone before us. I like to think there is an accountability inherent in such an observance.
We are not fully our own because we will always be a part of our family’s past, our personal past, and our community’s past. Whether or not we identify with paganism in its many forms, it has a wealth of wisdom from its ritual observances to teach us.
Such a relationship has been with Unitarian Universalism for decades — and it need not end. So what can we take away from Samhain as Unitarian Universalists? What is this celebration of old speaking to us in this moment and for our daily lives? And what on earth do Halloween and Samhain have to do with restoring our faith?
Since we are Unitarian Universalists, the usual lingo for church-life often has a different spin on it than in other traditions. Often it isn’t communicated at all, it’s just something people eventually learn. But when we talk about restoring our faith as Unitarian Universalists, I contend it goes back to covenant.
The relationships we have and the promises we uphold in those relationships are the backbone of how we come together and operate as a community. And so, if anything were to be labeled as our faith, it would be our covenants. Perhaps, then, it is more appropriate to say, how do we restore our relationships in this community?
It is a question that is worth exploring here at UUCL not just in this moment but in years to comes. And I know you’ve explored this over the past couple years. I understand if you want to groan at the prospect of exploring the past and looking to the future — again — why can’t we focus on the present moment?
The simple answer is that the work is never done. Churches are complex organizations, intertwined with emotions, right vs. wrong, the past always lives on and informs the future — we are very much, according to Edwin Friedman in his book Generation to Generation, like families, except we were not born or adopted into this one. We chose it. As messy as it is and can be, and it is all churches, societies, and clubs — we chose it. And so, yes, our work is not done.
We can choose to bring closure to the many trying moments of the past for this community or we can let things move backwards and collapse. It is not enough to just say this, but to say it again and again, and to remind ourselves of this, and to actually do it.
And here is where I believe the power of Samhain — All Hallow’s Eve — comes into play for us in this place. I recall hearing of a dear friend in a Unitarian Universalist pagan group some years ago share of her practice of forgiving her ancestors every Samhain in ritual.
I do not know why she needed to forgive them, but in that moment where she believed the veil between this world and the next was thinnest, she took time to forgive them. Whether she was a true believer or not in such a ritual did not matter to me, it had an effect on her that was clear and restorative.
That is the power such a day can teach us — we are never so far removed from the past that we always have opportunities to bring closure. And I am not pointing at specific pieces of congregational history, I’m pointing at all congregational history.
We are communities that are full of emotional interconnectedness and so there are always moments where restoring our relationships are needed and always moments for more compassion — for those that are no longer with us and especially for those that are still with us in this very room.
The veil between our present moment and the history that has informed this place is, I would argue, always thin. How will we reach across and familiarize ourselves with the roots of this community?
How will we allow those roots to reach across into this moment and guide us and where will we say no, we’ve found a new way? What will you do to help us reach closure? How will you participate in our continual restoration and health?
There’s always turning away and allowing the cycle to repeat. And in many churches and families that happens for years and years until people can no longer look one another in the eyes. That is an option.
It’s an option that reminds me of a Halloween practice of my own ancestors — the Cornish. In Cornwall, Halloween is called Allantide and one of the so called “games” of Allantide is the cross and apple game. Anyone ever heard of this?
It involves two pieces of wood nailed together in the shape of a cross. It’s hung like a mobile from the ceiling and each beam of the cross has four candles burning on it. Below, apples hang from the cross. The goal of the game is to bite the apples without getting hot wax on your face. Bobbing for apples doesn’t seem all that bad now, does it?
Thankfully my family never participated in such a game. But here is what that practice teaches us — why continue to dodge the burning conflicts of the recent or distant past? Why not blow out the candles and bring closure?
We are reminded of our mortality on these days — whether it is Samhain, Halloween, Day of the Dead, Allantide, All souls or all saints — all involve a reminder that the clock is ticking.
And so in the spirit of this holy day that is not only about putting candy into perfect little piles and cataloging it, it is not only about the best costumes, not bout wooden crosses with apples and melting wax, but underlining all of this it is about connecting ourselves to our past and moving into the rest of our days knowing they are precious and limited.
Don’t we deserve to go forward in wonder, compassion, and wholeness? Don’t we deserve to reach back into the past, confront it, and move on? Where else do we need to go and what else needs to be done? When we can say that this church, and one would hope, all churches are places where such questions are always asked, then the health of all that we do will be evident.
By naming our ancestors, whether they are people or events from our past, we remove much of their power over us. We reclaim the stories of the past. By doing so, we can move forward — with those stories on our hips, no longer allowing them to leap out and take control.
They will always be messy, they will never be neat little piles — if it’s one thing that our pagan brothers and sisters can definitely teach us, it is that the wheel of the year is messy, and that is good. Perfection is not the goal, but instead a restoring wholeness.
So in the days ahead, whether you find yourself praying with a good fire to mark these hallowed days or simply reflecting on their meaning and what they can teach us in this moment — think back to the happiest of moments and the most challenging for this faith community. Name them. Reconnect with those moments. Take away their power. The clock is ticking, a new moment awaits.