Word Of The Week: October 31st, 2009

Having had pagan friends for most of my life, I’ve been familiar with the holiday Samhain, but it wasn’t until I looked it up that I realized it was not, at least to modern pagans, October 31st, but the day after, November 1st. I’m not sure why this is, although maybe the answer lies in the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition, which says Samhain was “celebrated by the ancient Celts as a festival marking the beginning of winter and of the new year according to their calendar”. Since in the Northern hemisphere this time of year marks cooler weather, animals going into hibernation, the harvest, and death, it seems a strange time to call the new year–although not necessarily any stranger than January 1st, which falls in the middle of winter in the Northern hemisphere and the middle of summer in the Southern. Maybe the Celts were being optimistic. Maybe starting the new year at a time when so many things were ending was their way of noting the promise of renewal. And renewal would come with Samhain’s May counterpart, Beltane, but that’s another story. Clearly this was, and is, a time of change, and the Celts decided to celebrate rather than resist it. As the poet Robin Skelton says in his poem Samhain,

celebrate the riches we’ve known, the profusion,
the births, the deaths, the ever changing history,
finding in fire a vision beyond illusion,
welcoming the holiness and mystery.

For now, though, it’s still Halloween–my favorite time to put on a costume and celebrate the season. Guess who I’ve decided to be this year.