Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en”) is the ancient Celtic name for the Scorpio Cross-Quarter day, a Fire Festival forming one of the four Major Sabbats of paganism. Samhain means “summer’s end”, and marked the end of the old year for the pastoral Celts, the date upon which flocks and herds were driven back to winter quarters. It was a night of power and prophecy, when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was thinnest, the future could be divined, and those who had departed in the previous twelvemonth briefly returned to their loved ones before final departure from this plane.
Lights were placed in windows to guide the family dead homeward; initially these were anchored in hollowed-out beets or turnips, sometimes with faces carved into their sides to emit the gleam. Once the Irish found America and its bright orange field pumpkins, so much larger and easier to carve, these became the standard receptacle for what was already known as a “Jack-o-Lantern”, based on an age-old tale of a greedy miser and trickster named Jack who was so reprobate that even the Devil wouldn’t have him, forcing him to wander for all eternity with nothing more than an ember from the fires of hell to light his way.
Of course, with the Gateway open, others could cross into this reality as well, and the Celts took precautions when going abroad on this night, disguising or masking themselves as fiends, beasts, or fey, to fool any malicious spirits they might encounter. This was a precursor of Halloween costuming and trick-or-teat, which also has roots in the medieval custom of going door to door begging for “soul cakes”, small currant-studded pastries, in exchange for which the beggars promised to say prayers for the dead family members of their benefactors, caught in purgatory. But the old ways died hard, and the Catholic Church was faced with the dilemma of how to steer its parishioners away from what was essentially a pagan celebration of death.
Even the term “Halloween” betrays the Christian attempt to co-opt the holiday, which transformed Samhain into a day to honor the departed faithful. All Saints Day, also known as All-Hallows, was set for November 1st specifically to defuse Samhain, as a day devoted to all the Christians who had died for their religion, but didn’t have their own saint’s day reserved in the calendar. The night before it was known as “All Hallows Evening” or “Eve”, eventually contracted to “Hallowe’en”, until the apostrophe was dropped in the mid-20th century.
In the 19th century those naughtily repressed Victorians discovered the delights of Hallowe’en, sanitized it of its more objectionable (as they saw it) elements, and transformed it into a children’s holiday, with games of chance and fortune-telling, primarily of a romantic nature. But Halloween’s darker side could not be effaced; tricking has always been a part of the holiday, and extreme pranks tending toward outright vandalism plagued the celebration, especially during times of economic hardship.
By the 1920s Halloween had become popular enough in the States to rate civic parades and school costume parties, many of these designed to deflect wayward youth from more harmful pursuits. It wasn’t until after World War II, when America began flexing its economic muscle in more ostentatious display, that door-to-door suburban trick-or-treating, complete with prepacked costumes and mass-marketed candy (replacing the homemade variety), became the norm.
As a child of the ‘60s, Halloween holds many fond memories for me; its allure far surpassed Christmas for this budding pagan, despite the lack of presents, and I spent weeks designing my costume and importuning my harried mother to buy just one more decorative element to enliven our Halloween celebration.
Well, there’s no lack of holiday décor now, I can tell you! Halloween is by far the largest of my seasonal displays, sprawling across every room of the house, and now, with a full-sized garden, spilling out into the yard.
I have been an avid collector of Halloween for about 30 years; at one point in the mid-‘90s, the collection had grown to such an extent that it had to be categorized to be intelligible. So I now display themes of Halloween motifs, gathered on shelf and tabletop, or clustered on walls, or hanging from the ceiling. There are sections reserved for skeletons, skulls and reapers, the physical remains after death, as well as ghosts, the spectral residue, and tombstones, the memorial.
These elements are of course the core of the ancient Celtic celebration for the dead. But since the Middle Ages, witches and their feline familiars have been strongly associated with “the Devil’s holiday”, in an attempt to malign and marginalize wise women, crones, and herbal healers, holdouts of an ancient practice which still threatened Christianity’s dominance. Halloween was recast as a night devoted to all forms of evil, when good people shut their doors and spent the night in prayerful vigil.
Although depicted as haggard, warty and physically hideous for propaganda purposes, I do enjoy the traditional representation of witches, and choose to honor the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of “the Burning Times” by perpetuating that image. And so there are bevvies of witches and black cats on display, a virtual army of enchantresses and spell-casters to delight the eye and send a frisson up the spine.
Bats have long been associated with the holiday as well, perhaps because these eerie nocturnal flyers were often seen above the bonfires traditionally set ablaze on this night, attracted by insects drawn to the flames. From bats, of course, it’s just a hop, slither and lunge to the vampire, my personal favorite of the “new” accretions to Halloween. I have a crypt-full of bloodsuckers (which for me also includes bats and spiders) in the collection, each befanged denizen ready to pounce on the unwary, whether roosting on shelves, dangling above, or crawling up walls.
In addition to the collections by theme, there are a number of scale scenes incorporating various elements, from a small haunted village to a mini cemetery, complete with stone fencing I hot-glued myself, and now life-size cemeteries in the garden. But my absolute favorite is my depiction of a vintage ‘50s Halloween children’s party, populated by ten trick-or-treaters in assorted costumes, dollhouse furnishings and including many decorative elements I created myself.
As I encountered astrology and paganism in my late twenties, my celebration of Halloween took on a more spiritual tone, but I continue to enjoy the secular aspects (and the candy!). Halloween remains one of the few days when, as a “lapsed pagan”, I still perform ritual. It has become traditional for me to do rites of protection and benediction for the stray cats in my care on this evening, as well as remembrances of those who have passed on in the preceding year.
For departed loved ones, too, there are ceremonies, as I bid them “Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again.”
After the decorations, food is most central to me for Halloween. In many parties, dinners and gatherings over the decades, I have tried my hand at pretty much every creepy confection, ghastly ghoulash, appalling appetizer, monstrous main course, devilish dessert or queasy-making quaff you can think of.
This year my celebration has been rather subdued due to covid concerns, just a small dinner for five, to see the house and enjoy a few hard ciders for the season. It featured a popular favorite main course, my “Mummy Meatloaf”. For this I simply use my standard meatloaf recipe, which is a mix of beef and venison (for now, until I run out of my father’s last kill in the freezer) with shallot, garlic, rosemary and bread crumbs, bound with egg. I shape this like a body, with a round ball for the head atop a meaty rectangle, which is split vertically about halfway down by a seam to divide the legs, then arms are attached to the sides of the upper half. This is painted with tomato sauce and baked for about an hour and a quarter, after which strips of crescent dough are applied like wrappings, studded on its face with two black olive halves for eyes. The mummy is then baked another 15 minutes for the crescent dough to cook through and brown.
I serve this with jamishka, a dish of Hungarian extraction, of chunky mashed potatoes with lots of black pepper and caramelized onion folded in. I added a side of steamed yellow-orange cauliflower obtained on a recent pumpkin-picking trip to Amish country near Lancaster, washed down with a fine, unpasteurized local apple cider (as an aperitif I spike this with amaretto, a winning combination!).
For dessert I tried something new, my own creation. Earlier in the fall I had bought a bag of “pumpkin spice” snap cookies, which had proved less than palatable. The flavor was there but the texture was so hard, I nearly broke a tooth. I’m not sure if they were stale or this hardness was by design, but they were going to waste until I thought of using them for a pie crust. So I ground them into crumbs in the food processor, added a bit of brown sugar and melted butter, then packed it into a pie plate and prebaked it for 15 minutes at 300 degrees. After it cooled, I spread a thin layer of apple butter on the bottom, made solely with Honey Crisp apples (my favorite) and then the filling itself, a concoction of pumpkin, cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and nondairy whipped topping. It was a smashing success, like a Jack-o-Lantern left out for teen vandals on late Halloween night.
Taste-testing hard ciders has become a passion for me this year, and I had a broad range of unique flavors to choose from, for my guests to sample. Among the winners of my personal competition were Angry Orchard Green Apple and Rose; Ciderboys Blackberry Wild and First Press; Mackenzie Pumpkin Jack; and an Irish pear cider from Magners, should you choose to follow my lead.
With such reduced visitors, I baked none of my own cookies this year, instead supplementing my autumn diet with favorites from Aldi and Trader Joe. But in years past I have made Cocoa Cat Heads, a rich, dark cocoa cookie with candy corn eyes and licorice slice nose; shortbread Tombstones, dyed mottled gray like marble with the addition of black gel food coloring roughly mixed in at the end, “inscribed” with black Royal Icing; Cobweb cookies, a thin batter squeezed from a condiment dispenser into a spiderweb shape in a nonstick pan and fried until golden, then dusted with powdered sugar; and Caramel Apple cookies, a round Russian tea cake-type cookie dyed red, dipped in melted caramel and rolled in crushed pecans, with a toothpick “stem” for eating.
Outside, the garden is still vibrant with color as Halloween approaches. A killing frost was predicted for mid-October, but mercifully failed to materialize, allowing my late-sown marigolds and cosmos to come into full flower. Autumn tones on the dogwood and hydrangea have added to the display, with their deep red and burgundy hues punctuated with purple mums and bright yellow maple and birch leaves.
This is the first year I have had extensive space for decorating outdoors, and I took full advantage. I added four life-size skeletons and an additional Grim Reaper to the population, and drug out my many tombstones to create four distinct areas to my garden-wide cemetery.
A skeleton and a Reaper have supplanted autumn’s scarecrow and now greet visitors at the garden gate, along with spiderwebs and a collection of discarded bones. Here signs point to options to proceed rightwards to the haunted house, or left to the spooky graveyard.
Once inside the gate, a pair of skeleton lovers holds hands (and occasionally engages in carnal acts, when the guests won’t be offended) beneath a bat-infested tree in a mini-graveyard, while the main cemetery can be seen on the hilltop in the distance.
Follow the curving grass path to the cemetery’s official welcome sign, where another Reaper awaits to direct you, along with a small ghoul and a zombie just emerging from its grave. A little further along and you’ll see a skeleton sitting at the picnic table, petting his zombie cat, and then it’s “Dead Mother’s Day”, with the daddy skeleton bringing his twin sons to visit their decomposing mama. The birch which overarches these displays is hung with 18 skull garlands, suspended vertically, which scrape the ground, swaying in the breeze, for a macabre “tree of the dead” effect.
Another curve of the path reveals more tombstones with another skeleton breaking ground, and then the ascent to the top of Pumpkin Hill, where a final pair of skeletons looms with more ghouls and ground breakers. This cluster of graves is the most elaborate, true hardscape monuments that look like the genuine article. I collected these from Target over a number of Halloween seasons in the early years of the new millennium, and they’ve held up extraordinarily well.
The various sections of the cemetery are hit with solar spotlights, which charge daily and come on automatically as dusk deepens to night, no effort required! With the line of solar jack-o-lantern luminarias that front the hilltop cemetery, they create an eerie scene which I enjoy nightly. Orange lights are also strung in the birch and on a large yew, but to my mind, these lessen the creepy effect of the spotlights, and I only use them when touring guests.
Lastly, a lighted witch flying over a full harvest moon glows from the bedroom window overlooking the garden.
It’s been an odd week here, weatherwise, with frequent dense morning fogs that linger into the afternoon, overcast skies and drizzle or light rain. But the skies are expected to clear by Saturday morning, preparing the way for the first Full Moon on Halloween in decades. Here’s hoping we get to see it in all its spectral glory!
And so I bid, “Happy Samhain to All, and to All a Good Fright!”
[Special thanks to my cousin, Renee Weiss, who took the exquisite night shots for this article with her iPhone; their appearance almost tempts this technophobe to invest in smart phone technology. Almost.]