While the cultural celebration of Halloween involves children, costumes, treats and perhaps tricks, the religious celebration of the same day, called Samhain, is celebrated by Pagans in both public and private rituals. In Boston in 2005, there were at least four public ceremonies available over the weekend and on Samhain, October 31, itself.
On Saturday night, Women’s Lodge held their annual circle in a rented church space in Newton. Over 50 women were in attendance. The ritual included circle dancing, singing, and meditation. Women visited altars that had been created to commemorate ancestors and to honor the three aspects of the Goddess: Maiden, Mother and Crone. Participants had the opportunity to remember their beloved dead, to dance with these departed loved ones, to experience their personal grief in a community setting, and to honor the cycle of life. Women who have achieved the age and state of life as elders were honored by the community, and these women offered blessings to all the younger women present. The challenges of the past year, the multiple environmental disasters and the many, many deaths from tsunami, war, hurricane, and environmental devastation caused by governmental policies were acknowledged. Grief was honored, and compassion was offered. The political activism of foremothers was honored and appreciated as an inspiration for the women present, many of whom are concerned about and active in political causes. Goddesses from many religious traditions were honored, particularly Kali from the Hindu tradition. The work of Marija Gimbutas is a founding source for this group.
On Sunday night a ritual was held at a Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington, with approximately 30 people, both men and women, in attendance. This ritual also offered participants a chance to move into and through grief, and then the opportunity to meditate at an altar for the ancestors. Tools of divination such as tarot cards were available, as were mirrors and bowls of water which could be used to receive images. This is considered the time of year when “the veils between the worlds are thin” and as such it is a special time to receive teachings and messages from those who have died and gone on into spiritual realms. The wisdom that was heard, the messages from the ancestors was shared among the group, and then all came back to the center to dance and raise energy to send that wisdom out into the world. A variation on a spiral dance was used, along with live drumming, for this purpose. Then all feasted on apples, which contained the wisdom brought forth from the ancestors. The work of Starhawk and the Reclaiming community are inspirational to most of the priestesses jointly leading the ritual.
Starhawk: The Gifts of Grief
Starhawk, a leading writer and activist, wrote a spell for Samhain, shared online in her article “The Gifts of Grief.” She writes of the necessity of opening one’s heart to the pain, to the grief that is an appropriate response to the year’s loses, and then open to the compassion that can come from the growth of a heart that has been broken. The world needs compassionate activists, those who can look the losses in the face, and carry on with clear and open hearts and minds.
True grief has the power to open the heart. It strips away lies, dissolves false differences, and reminds us that we are all vulnerable, all mortal, all clinging for our lives to those fragile cords of love that bind us to those we care about. True grief casts out fear… This is the spell I would shape this Samhain season. We are in a time of great loss, facing more before the world comes back into balance. The gifts of grief are painful, but if we open to them, allow our hearts to break and in breaking, expand, then grief and compassion may save our lives.
The Earthspirit community held a ritual open to the pubic in Somerville on Sunday night, as well as one in Northampton the night before. Their Samhain webpage described the ritual as a time to “reflect on your mortality, honor those who have passed and find a quiet place in the darkness, to reap your harvest between now and winter.” About sixty people were in attendance at the Somerville ritual in a Davis Square VFW hall. The darkened hall filled slowly with people entering the circle wordlessly. Many participants brought pictures of departed loved ones and placed them on the ancestor altar. The ritual began with a circle of five people in the center of the room, quietly intoning an invocation; then thoughts about death, both in nature and in our lives, were recited from the larger circle. As the days grow colder and shorter and the leaves fall from the trees, we are reminded that death is everywhere, without mercy, waiting for us all. Songs and circle dances marked these thoughts, and all were invited to speak aloud the names of those they had lost in the last year. All those who had gone before, from those close to us to those far back in history, were honored in darkness. Participants made offerings of fallen leaves, seeds, and flowers in their memory. With the harvest complete, the songs and chants marked a time of change and belonging to the earth. The presence of death serves to remind us that we are very much alive, even in the dark times of the year, and all celebrated with a spiral dance that sped up into a joyful final shout. The event finished with a potluck dinner and donations to a local food pantry, “as a symbol of the way we can nourish one another through the dark time.” According to their website, this ritual was Earthspirit’s 27th annual celebration. The words for the chants are available online.
The Tremont Tearoom
The Tremont Tearoom held a public ritual on the Boston Common on Samhain night itself. The Parkman Bandstand hosted about thirty people celebrating the circle of life, death, and rebirth. Michael Palermo of the Tearoom cast a magical circle and dedicated the ritual to Hecate and Hades, dark aspects of the God and Goddess, asking for guidance into the new year through the passing away of the old year. The beneficence of the four elements and the spirits was invoked on those present. Thirteen participants held thirteen pumpkins carved with positive symbols and runes, and recited the meaning of each symbol as each pumpkin was lit. Resolutions for the next year were offered, and the group prayed for insight, and for an end to the destruction against our planet. Prayers for guidance and wisdom for our political and religious leaders, protection for the men and women fighting in Iraq, and the individual wishes of those present were offered to the Dark Mother and the Dark Father. A final prayer for the new year was offered, and the ceremony ended with a circle dance, song, and the opening of the circle.
It is likely that many Pagans chose to celebrate in their more intimate ritual groups, but for some this high holiday, signifying the ending of the year and the beginning of the new one, is celebrated in larger gatherings of like-minded ritualists. These public rituals also serve as an introduction for new people to this religious path, as well as a community gathering for solitaries, those who otherwise practice on their own.
—Grove Harris and Emily Ronald, Pluralism Project Staff
Starhawk’s Gifts of Grief webpage, retrieved 11/3/2005
Earthspirit’s Samhain East webpage, retrieved 11/3/2005
Earthspirit’s Samhain Chants webpage, retrieved 11/3/2005