Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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Why I Celebrate American Halloween

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

While a lot of Wiccans and other Pagans are celebrating Samhain, and some Heathen and Asatru groups celebrate Winterfyllith or Winter-Finding, I'm celebrating an old-fashioned American Halloween, participating with the neighbors on my street in the community ritual of decorating and giving away candy to costumed children. This is the first year I've done Halloween while my household includes a non-heathen pagan, but she is into American Halloween too, replicating the kind of Halloween we both remember from our childhoods.

The Asatru group Freya's Folk in San Francisco has been holding a Winterfyllith celebration for many years. They used to belong to the Ring of Troth, and when that organization split into The Troth and the American Vinland Association, they went with the AVA. I used to attend campout festivals held by that group back when I lived in California, but their Winterfyllith celebration wasn't an overnight so I didn't go to that one.

I personally celebrate seasonal changes that relate to the actual bioregion and climate in which I live, which is the Mojave Desert, so around the beginning of fall my kindred celebrates Rainbow Season, the end of the monsoon season. The first winter frost here usually coincides with Yule so that's when we celebrate the onset of winter here. My kindred, American Celebration Kindred, celebrates both heathen holidays and American holidays like Halloween.

As I did last year, I'm giving away candy from my driveway instead of having kids come to the door. I did that last year as a pandemic precaution, but I'm going to keep doing it because I like it better this way, and so does my cat. (Happy doesn't like strangers, so lots of strangers coming to the door is not on his list of favorite pastimes.) I like this better because when my neighbors and I all have tables outside we end up visiting with each other between groups of children, going to each others' tables like vendors at a slow fair. I also like this better because I get to see the costumes more, since I can see them as the kids walk up the street rather than only seeing them for a few seconds while we're trying to interact and complete the ritual phrases ("Trick or treat!") and actions (giving candy.) As I've been doing for the two decades I've lived in this house, I decorate around a different theme each year. One year it was moons and stars, one year it was Vikings, etc. This year's theme is fire. I'm hauling out the portable firepit and having a bonfire on my driveway, and toasting marshmallows.

One of the main functions of a culture's holiday celebrations is to bring a community together in shared ritual. American Halloween does that for the community of my street and neighborhood. By tradition, adults with homes participate in the decorating and giving half of the ritual, while children traditionally dress as the ghosts and monsters and fairies that arrive with the thinning of the veil between worlds on this night, enacting a propitiation of the dead and of otherworldly beings.

Now modern children often dress as heroes or other aspirational figures in addition to the fae, spectres, undead. For what is a hero but a monster who has chosen actions according to a personal moral code that aligns with society's in some way? Recently while shopping for candy to give away I noticed a child size Spiderman suit hanging forlornly on an otherwise bare rack, like the husk of a spider's victim still hanging in its web. It waited for a child who wished to dress as a boy whose hands turned into spider butts. Is this not monstrous? Is this metamorphosis any less a horror than Gregor Samsa's?

Modern adults sometimes costume as well, and my housemate and I are doing, because why not? Tonight we are all liminal beings, part of the community and yet also partaking of the monstrous and the other.

On this night we do not slay monsters, but welcome them, praise their odd bodies, their red gore and green slime, their fur and their horns and their lights and their weapons, and the fairy princess we praise most of all, because what is more monstrous, in the end, than otherworldly beauty? What is more horrible than a glamour which conceals a terrible power, unknown, compressed into reality in a form just short of the uncanny valley, hinting at a true form of Lovecraftian madness which if once seen cannot be unseen?

Many people are drawn to pagan and heathen traditions through holidays like Halloween, which clearly have some pagan content, even if the forms in which we practice the holiday have developed in the modern age. Yet, when we arrive at Pagan, Heathen, and Wiccan religions we often find an unrecognizable holiday in place of the one from our childhoods. As I value community and tradition, and as I live in a place where it is easy to participate in community ritual with neighbors because everyone on my street is also participating, I choose the traditional American Halloween.

I recall a moment of humor from a past Halloween, when my mom was alive.
Mom: "What are you going to be for Halloween?"
Me: "A witch."
Mom: "But what are you going to dress up as?"

Witch costumes are a power fantasy, an embodiment of archetype, a hint that this night above all other is a night of magic. But what about a real witch dressed as a something innocuous, such as a jack o lantern? Or is fire-lit Jack so innocuous after all? A pumpkin cut up not to make pie but as a sacrifice, a traditional part of ritual, made into a character who lights the way for the spirits of the dead and the monsters to roam the night, and also serves to protect the house from them, a guardian in horrific form like a gargoyle?

Who is to say that all of the small strange beings I propitiate with sweets tonight are children in costume, and not true monsters dancing through the world on the one night they are safe to show themselves? I find myself glad that I have started setting up my candy table at the edge of my property, where the shields begin, rather than at my threshhold within the heart of my garden. Here you are, ghosties and ghoulies and long leggity beasties, have a candy, have a handful of candy, warm yourself by the fire and enjoy a toasted marshmallow, and then be on your way back to your holes before sunrise, for you would not want to turn to stone with a sackful of candy. Sweets for the sweet, and nuts for the nutty, and fire for all who love chaos and warmth and entropy.

Image: a pumpkin and black cat candle lantern made by Erin Lale, with Halloween lights in the background, photo by Erin Lale

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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, and the updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path. Erin has been a gythia since 1989. She was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. She also writes science fiction and poetry, ran for public office, is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Sunday, 31 October 2021

    I handed out candy this evening as well. I find it comforting that children still go around trick or treating just like I did when I was there age. I have a pumpkin on my porch; the house feels undressed if I don't have any pumpkins on the front porch, as if I've violated some pact if the pumpkin isn't there. I don't carve my pumpkins. It's a rather large one this year so on Thanksgiving day I will cut it in half and leave the two pieces by the back fence for the squirrels and birds.

  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale Monday, 01 November 2021

    Cool! This year my housemate carved a pumpkin. It's shortly going to be a present for the gnome a.k.a. compost. Her grandson came over and they went trick or treating around my neighborhood. My street might just be developing into a full blown block party or street fair. In addition to candy I also handed out pomegranates and toasted marshmallows. Now I'm too tired to start taking everything down so I'm doing net stuff instead lol. One of the things I love about Halloween and other American holidays like that is that everyone in the community can participate, all religions, cultures, races, ages, genders, everybody together.

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