Samhain, Death, and Dying

Samhain (pronounced sow-win) is the Celtic festival celebrating the end of the harvest season. Literally translated, the word means “summer’s end”. We associate Samhain with modern Halloween, although the festival is much older. Many modern Halloween customs, however, do spring from pagan Samhain practices. 

Back in my Christian days I was extremely anti-Halloween. I remember that once I wrote an essay denouncing Halloween for being a holiday of devil worship built upon pagan roots. Nevermind that Christmas and Easter are also rooted in pagan practices. I can only say that my strong aversion to Halloween was because of Christian indoctrination and not understanding what Samhain represents. 

I find it fascinating that most cultures have similar celebrations and that those celebrations are generally clustered around the same time on the calendar. Samhain comes shortly after the Jewish festival Sukkot, and is on the same day as the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. Yes, I said they are the same day. Celtic days, like Jewish days, begin and end at sunset. If you notice on most calendars you will see a note that says “Jewish holidays begin at sunset on the evening prior to the date listed.” The same is true with Celtic holidays. Samhain begins at sunset on October 31 and runs until sunset on November 1. Our calendars list Halloween as October 31 because our days begin at midnight. 

Samhain is not an evil holiday. It is not about worshipping satan and all that stuff. The vast majority of people who celebrate Samhain do not even believe in the Chrsitian Satan or even in the concept of a similar being. Like Sukkot and Dia de los Muertos, Samhain is about remembering, honoring, and connecting with those who came before us. 

Samhain represents death, and that frightens a lot of people. Our society is afraid of death and dying. We do everything we can to postpone death for as long as possible. For some, the ability to live forever would be a welcome option. But death is a natural part of life. We all will die at some point. We shouldn’t fear death. We should aim to die well. Samhain ends the warm growing half of the year. It is the demarcation line between light and dark, life and death. Samhain is a transition to the dark half of the year. What we have not harvested returns to earth. It is a cycle. It is organic. 

If you can, make an ancestor altar. Light candles, add photographs or a list of names, and add little gifts and treats of things that your ancestors liked. If you can’t make an altar, take time to explore and deepen your knowledge of your family history. Pick one ancestor or loved one whom you would like to remember and light a candle in his or her honor. These are just a few of many ways you can celebrate Samhain if you don’t already have it as part of your traditions. And, if you do, feel free to share your favorite Samhain customs below.

 

The Ouroboros Year

The autumn Jewish holidays will end this week with the days of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The soul searching that began during the month of Elul will culminate in the joyous abandon of Simchat Torah. 

The seven day festival of Sukkot ends today (Sunday October 20). As the sun sets this evening we mark the beginning of Shemini Atzeret. Literally, the name means stopping on the 8th day. While Shemini Atzeret has no customs of it’s own, it is, nevertheless a holy day. It is a day for dwelling with G-d. You know how when someone you love comes to visit? Sometimes when it’s time for them to leave you are having such a wonderful time and you don’t want them to go. So, you ask them to stay for another day. That’s Shemini Atzeret. We have had this month almost two month time of introspection and deepening our relationship with G-d. Now it’s time to leave. But G-d wants to spend one more day with us before sending us back to our ordinary lives. So, we spend this day with G-d. Just dwelling. In relationship. Deepening. 

Immediately as the sun begins to set on Shemini Atzeret we begin the final of the autumn holidays- Simchat Torah. This is a day of joy and rejoicing in the Torah. The Jewish scriptures, the five books of Moses, are central to our daily lives. We read the complete Torah each year- a new portion each week. We  study the weekly portion, read it aloud in synagogue services, and apply what we learn to our lives. Simchat Torah marks the end of the cycle. We read the end of Deuteronomy 34 and immediately begin again with Genesis 1. By looping from the end to the beginning we remember that the Torah is a cycle- it has no beginning or ending. The festival is also marked with dancing and parading with Torah scrolls. 

From the 1st of Elul until the sun sets on Simchat Torah, we have spent 52 days with G-d. For the past 52 days we have looked inside ourselves, questioned our motives, renewed our relationships, and embarked on a new year of Torah study. May the new year of 5780 be a reflection of the work from the past 52 days.

 

Sukkot and Ancestor Veneration

Now that we have passed the High Holidays and the Days of Awe, we are embarking upon another 7 day Jewish festival- the harvest festival Sukkot. Sukkot begins on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei- at the time of the full moon. Sukkot is a time to build huts and decorate them with fruits. It’s the time we dwell in these huts to remind ourselves of our agrarian roots and the temporary nature of the dwellings we lived in in the desert after the Exodus. 

Sukkot is so much more than this, however. It is also the time to venerate our ancestors. Just like the Celtic Samhain and the Mexican Day of the Dead, Sukkot is a time to honor and remember our ancestors. Building a sukkah and engaging in everyday activities within it is not enough. We also welcome ushpizin or guests, into our sukkah. Those guests are friends and relatives, but also, our ancestors.

Traditionally speaking we invite one of the seven patriarchs and matriarchs to dine with us each night of the festival. It is often common to also welcome our own ancestors to dwell with us as well. In order to welcome the ancestors it is customary to decorate the walls of the sukkah with photographs and other objects. We also place empty chairs for the spiritual ushpizin to sit in. Special prayers and blessings are recited for welcoming the souls of our departed ushpizin. When we decorate the sukkah and welcome our spiritual guests, we are basically building an ancestor altar (although modern Judaism would not even be aware of this). 

The custom of welcoming guests into our sukkah goes all the way back to our patriarch Abraham. It is well known that he would sit in his tent and welcome guests. His tent is said to have been open on all sides so that he could see travelers from whatever direction they came. When Abraham saw a traveler, that person would become his guest for a welcoming meal and respite from the road. 

Let us be like Abraham and make this Sukkot a lovely time of welcoming our ancestors as guests. They have been travelling a long and hard road after their passing. Let us welcome them into the cool shade of our sukkah for rest and a meal.