Halloween Has Been Tainted in Seoul This Year, So Let’s Talk About Samhain Instead
I live in Seoul, just about five minutes up the street from the Hamilton Hotel, where this weekend’s horrific and tragic events unfolded around midnight on Saturday. I heard the sirens long before news started to break online and actually first heard about what was going on when I turned to Twitter, which is faster now than even the fastest news site.
I will probably write more about that later. At the moment, the entire nation is in shock and mourning, and social media, blogs and news sites are full of knee-jerk reactions and finger pointing, as well as every group under the sun rushing in to use the situation to prove whatever they can extract from it related to their own agenda.
The point is, Halloween is tainted this year in Seoul. And it probably will be for many years to come. So I want to talk about Samhain instead, which is the holiday I technically celebrate on this day.
I love this time of year. I have for as long as I can remember. Spring and summer people are a mystery to me. I like the dark and the cold, the big yellow moon, the mist that hangs in the air at dawn. And while I get the science behind why the leaves change colors, every year, it still seems like magic to me.
A Liminal Time of Year
It’s an eerie, mysterious time of year. The nights grow longer and nature dies back. It’s no surprise that cultures all over the world have associated the autumn with death. In Mexico, they have Dia de los Muertos, in India, Pitru Paksha, and in East Asia there are a number of holidays from late summer to mid autumn that honor the dead and welcome them back for visits around this time of year.
The ancient Celts also believed the barrier between our world and the other world became more permeable in the fall. At the end of the harvest season, starting at sundown on October 31st and lasting until sundown on November 1st (since the Celtic day began at sundown), they would hold the Samhain festival, which, since their lives revolved around agriculture, was really a kind of new year’s celebration. With the end of the harvest, another year’s cycle would begin.
Samhain has a special place in my heart, because it’s one of the only pagan celebrations that the church didn’t manage to totally obliterate in mainstream culture. Despite the successful rebranding of the day as Halloween, and the fact that many people today don’t know that they’re actually celebrating Samhain, it still hasn’t managed to be coopted into a religious holiday. It remains staunchly and stubbornly secular.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that it was a day whose customs and meanings were so antithetical to Christian beliefs to begin with. After all, the souls of the dead can’t come back to our world to visit once they’re in the Christian heaven. And other spooky, otherworldly things can’t cross over, either.
Samhain was all about the thinning of the veil. As everyone prepared to settle in for the dark, cold, quiet part of the year, there was feasting to celebrate the harvest and slaughtering of livestock — the last big feast before winter rationing set in. And they didn’t forget the dead.
Dumb Suppers: A Feast for the Dead
The practice of the dumb supper was one of the most prominent ways the ancestors were honored at Samhain. A dumb supper was a meal held in complete silence, when the dead were invited to join in the feasting. Sometimes the meal was held backwards, starting with dessert and ending with bread.
Later, in the UK and the US, the practice was mixed with another Samhain tradition — divination — as young single women held dumb suppers around midnight to divine their true love. Not only were these meals eaten in silence and often backwards, but the women would do other topsy turvy things, like sit backwards on their chairs or purposely confuse the proper order of the table setting. It was said that if the practice was carried out properly, the spirits of the women’s future husbands would appear at midnight. But it could also go wrong. Sometimes, a coffin would appear instead, intimating the approach of death.
The Roots of Halloween
Bobbing for apples is another pagan divination practice that occurred at Samhain. The apples would have the names of potential suitors written on them, and if a young person could grab an apple in one bite, the owner of the name written on that apple was said to be their future partner.
Jack-o-lanterns also got their start in Samhain practices, as root vegetables — often turnips instead of pumpkins — were carved with grotesque faces and lit from within, and then set out on windowsills or doorsteps to ward of any evil supernatural beings that may have slipped through the veil.
The same reasoning led to the practice of mumming and guising — dressing up as someone, or something else or wearing masks to disguise your true identity. This was believed to confuse any maleficent beings who may be on the hunt for easy prey. Mumming was also incorporated into the practice that would become trick-or-treating, when people would dress up as the souls of the dead and go from house to house receiving offerings of food and drink on behalf of the souls who had crossed over, symbolically threatening to do harm if they were not appeased.
A Deeper Meaning
My favorite Samhain practice, though, has to do with the bonfires that were a common part of the holiday up into the 20th century even in the US, where the holiday — or its rebranded stand-in, Halloween — was imported by Scottish and Irish immigrants.
At Samhain, children from the community would go from house to house collecting fuel for a giant communal bonfire. At sundown, the fire was lit and the whole community came together to bask in the warmth and the light that perhaps reminded them of the sun, which would soon be retreating to greater and greater distances. The smoke from the fire was thought to have protective spiritual properties, and people would bathe themselves and their livestock in the smoke with hopes that it would help them survive the winter.
Before modern times, fire was perhaps the most important thing each household had. Without it, you could starve or freeze to death. So it is was a great act of trust in the community to intentionally allow your hearth fire to go out, as people did at Samhain. Throughout the day, each household would allow their fire to burn down, and then use a torch lit from the communal fire to relight it upon their return home.
I personally find this to be a touching metaphor for communal connection. In the several months prior, the members of different households would have had to rely on the community to help them get the frantic work of the harvest done in time. And over the coming months, the members of the community would need to know that they could rely on each other to get through the scarcity of winter. Putting out the hearth fires and relighting their households from the communal fire may have been a symbolic tribute to this reliance on and trust in each other.
What’s Been Lost
It’s remarkable how many of the practices of this ancient holiday have survived through the centuries unscathed, but I do think some of the best parts have been lost. For me, Samhain is a good time not only to indulge in spooky, mysterious vibes, but also to honor and commune with the dead, reflect on the past year and show gratitude for the people who have helped you make it through and who will be there for you in any hard times that are yet to come.
Samhain marks one of the two biggest turnings of the seasons we have every year, when we go from light and warm to cold and dark, and for me, that makes it a good time to prepare for a more quiet and reflective season. As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, it’s a good time to rest, burrow in at home, and draw closer to warmth of the ones you love. It’s not the spookiest sentiment, I know, but it makes Halloween feel more meaningful to me.