Samhain, the third of the Harvest Festivals, occurs when the Sun is aspected at 15 ° Scorpio. Traditionally, this has been celebrated on October 31st, but since the precession of the equinoxes this date now falls on or about Nov 5th most years. Since the October 31st date has been so popular for so long, there is a lot of Samhain energy associated with that date. So whether you choose to celebrate on Oct. 31st, or whether you choose the actual astrological date of Samhain, the energies will be there for you to tap into. Most groups now pick the nearest available weekend between these dates that best fits into their schedule.
In agricultural cultures, this was the last of the Harvests, when the gourds and pumpkins, and the last of the grains would be brought in. Whatever was left in the fields after this was considered "puka", or fairy blasted, and was certainly not considered fit to eat. For the fairies were said to go underground right after Samhain, and not show themselves again until the day after May Day. If a person was careless, they could find themselves in the land of Fairie! This was part of the tradition relating to costumes and masks at Samhain.
This is the time when the veils between the world of the living and the world of the dead is the thinnest. Our ancestors knew this, and so there was also the fear that the dead would return to haunt, or even possess, the bodies of the living, or drag them back to the Underworld. Masks and costumes prevented the dead, and the fairies, from knowing who was who, and those with vengeful deceased relatives could feel safe from harm. We wear masks so that our playful side can come out and take over without fear of ridicule. Some traditions wore a mask at every Sabbat to preserve secrecy, along with the traditional black hooded robe.
This would also be the time when the herds were "culled", which means that the farmer would have to decide which of his animals would most likely not survive the winter. These animals would be slaughtered, and the meat smoked and also used for the Feast. Reason being that if the animal would probably be too weak to live anyway, might as well eat it now, rather than waste fodder feeding it, and then have to kill it later, when it was tough and thin, or not be able to eat it at all if it suffered a long illness. Practicality was the most important survival trait. Thus it is that for us, this time of year is when we "cull" our habits, our possessions, and also our feelings. Getting rid of anything that we don't want to bring with us into the new year is what this is all about. Feelings of anger and resentment, bad habits that keep us from our desired goals, or even possessions can sometimes be holding us back from our spiritual goals. These are best evaluated and eliminated at this time of the year.
In several traditions, the Goddess rules half of the year, and the God rules the remainder. In some this is an equal 6 months and 6 months, in others, it sometimes differs with the growing season. In our tradition, Samhain is when the High Priestess gives the Staff of the Coven over to the High Priest, to ritually comemorate that it is now his time to "rule". Since it is now the "hunter" time of the year, he leads the circle, casts the circle, and we will evoke the God first during ritual. At Beltain, he will ritually hand the Staff back to the High Priestess to signify that her "rule" begins, and so on. Since our coven is based in South Florida, our agricultural year doesn't coincide with our traditional one, so we don't keep this tradition in it's strictest sense. These are the foundations on which our religion is built, but our real guide is whether or not it works for us as a group and as individuals, and only each person can judge that for herself.
The myth of Persephone going underground to Hades is a very popular Samhain Sabbat story. Actually, I have heard two similar versions. The first, is the matriarchal myth which told how Persephone loved all life, and was sad dened by the death of the things that she loved. Demeter, her mother, also was in charge of the Underworld, but she let Hades rule there without her, since she preferred the living world above. Persephone took pity on the souls who had no one to greet them and show them compassion, so she followed a hare down into a hole which became a cave and led her to the Underworld. There she met Hades, who fell in love with her. Eventually, she loved him as well, and so she stayed there. Demeter was distraught, and all the earth suffered her saddness, as she would allow nothing to grow until her daughter's return. Persephone, upon hearing this news, returned to her Mother, but as she had promised to love Hades, and the souls of the dead, so she returns to Hades for a few months each year. So goes what I believe to be a version of the original myth.
After the takeover of the matrifocal cultures by the patriarchal invaders, this myth was changed, as were many that featured our Goddesses prominently. Now the myth had Persephone kidnapped against her will, held captive in Hades, raped, and tricked into eating pomegranate seeds so that she would have to return and dwell there. This version can be read in most Greek mythology books, but I prefer the prior version, where Persephone chooses freely out of her compassion for all creatures and beings to become Queen of the Underworld for a certain number of months each year. The number of months differs from culture to culture and depends on their own climate, it corresponds to the number of winter months they experience. It usually varies from 3 to 6, and also corresponds to the number of pomegranate seeds that Persephone ate.
As Persephone descends into the Underworld, she also becomes a symbol of the Crone, wise with her years, and willing to face death. As the Crone, we seek within to find our fears and to release them. We can send our fears to the Underworld with Her, there to have them transformed into strengths, and be reborn to us.
Our tradition teaches us that we will also be reborn, with those that we love, and that we will remember, and love them again. This is the promise of the Goddess, which is symbolized by the apple. When you slice the apple crosswise, a pentagram is revealed, the symbol of life. The Goddess's promise is that the seeds of rebirth are revealed in the fruit, even the fruit of death, as symbolized by the pomegranate. We say that the promise of a whole orchard is revealed in the pentagram of one apple.
Many Sabbat celebrations will include divination, as this is the best time of year to confer and speak with the spirits of the dead, and to honor your ancestors and other deceased family and friends. The "dumb supper" is a place setting set out at the feasting table with food for the spirits of the dead, so that they may join in the feasting. Where others may fear their dead, we honor them, knowing that we will join them, and be reborn with those we love. As the veils between the worlds are sheer, the dead can tell us what we wish to know. But use caution, remember - just because they're dead, doesn't mean they are now virtuous! If someone was a liar in life, death won't change that! I do not condone the use of ouija boards for those who are inexperienced; spirit possession is not just a cheap movie script. At the very least, you could simply attract a malicious spirit and not be able to get rid of it, and it can cause you trouble. Tarot cards, runes, I Ching, and other means of divination are safer than a ouija board as they do not request that a spirit come and make direct contact with you. Rather, your higher self speaks through your subconcious mind by using the symbols there. Divination of this sort can be extremely accurate at this time, to let you know what is in your immediate future.
Decorate with orange and black, also yellow, and deep russets and browns. Gourds are appropriate, especially carved pumpkins with candles in them! These originated as scary faces carved in gourds to frighten away any evil spirits in the vacinity, and were used with candles in them to light the way of carollers. Wassailing, or carolling, was once associated with most holidays. Groups of neighbors would go from house to house singing songs that were appropiate to the holiday in return for drinks and treats. This has now become the trick-or-treat associated with Halloween, and the Christmas carols associated with Christmas. However, once they were not divided, but done at the same time.
Foods for this season are apples and pomegranates, the fruits of life and death. Also pumpkin pie, apple cider, venison, and root vegetables such as carrots, yams, potatoes, and turnips. Of course, we are lucky in that we can usually buy any kind of food we prefer, rather than having to rely on what is available locally. It is still fun, however, to tie the Sabbat together with the proper foods and drinks for the season.