Samhain. All Hallow’s Eve. Halloween. No matter what you call it, this is a sacred day. What began as a Celtic harvest festival evolved over time into a Christianized day prior to the day to honor saints and has since morphed into a secular day of parties and candy. I won’t go into the history of Samhain because you can find that online pretty easily. What I will talk about is why I, as a Jewish woman, celebrate Samhain.
Samhain (pronounced sow-win) and the two days after it (seriously- look up that history if you don’t already know it) are an auspicious time for honoring the dead. Most cultures throughout history have honored the dead and looked at their ancestors for guidance (you can look up the history of this as well).
Side note before I go further: I won’t get into religious dogma here but will point out that some religions do believe that talking to the dead, praying to the dead, etc. is taboo. Also, some people believe that if you borrow something from a culture you weren’t born into that you are appropriating the culture. I will say up front that cultural appropriation is a bad thing, but I don’t think most of what is labeled as cultural appropriation is really that. I think it has to do with intention. If you have no real knowledge of something and just think it’s cute and then practice a silly form of it, sure. That’s cultural appropriation. But, if you admire some aspect about a culture, study it, learn about it, and genuinely apply that to you own life, that’s flattery. After all, isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
Back to the point of this blog. Being born in the American South I was taught from a young age to respect my elders and that the elders are wise. This isn’t really all that different from many other places. As a Christian I was taught that once our elders die, that’s it. We learn from their lives but we move on. Once I began studying Judaism, that changed for me. In Judaism, elders play a big role, but so do our ancestors- you know- the ones who have already crossed over. In Judaism there is a holiday called Sukkot. Actually, it’s not a day, it’s 8 days. We really like to stretch our celebrations out! Sukkot is a harvest festival and a time to honor and commemorate our ancestors. We build a little hut in our yard- called a sukkah- and we eat meals in there and sometimes even invite our ancestors to join us.
Anyway, this isn’t a blog about Sukkot. It’s a blog about Samhain. Since Judaism already has a holiday that celebrates the harvest and honors ancestors, why do I need Samhain? Well, I don’t need it per se. I can live without it just fine. I choose to honor Samhain because I choose to honor my ancestors for a season instead of a week. My ancestors are the people who came before me, who created me, and even though my spirituality is not what theirs was, I would not be here without my ancestors. So I choose to honor them for a season. I welcome them into my sukkah and I commune with them through Samhain. I can’t physically be with my ancestors anymore, so I spend time with them spiritually- for a season- and reflect on all that they have given me.