Whether you call it Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Samhain (pronounced a bit like sewin'), or tomorrow's All Souls Day is more your speed, and even if you believe tomorrow is All Saints Day and All Souls Day is November 2nd, many cultures and religions believe that tonight is the time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest and it's a good time to remember all that have left us in this world. So gather your dear ones to your heart, and join me for a smattering of symbolism, a bit of holiday history, and a few moments to honor the dead.
Samhain is first and foremost a pagan holiday. The thing I love about paganism - which I mostly use as an umbrella term, but most of the traditions that speak to me come from the Celts, who are fascinating, nocturnal, and related to the origin of the statement about corporal punishment and the ginger children of your spouse. Samhain is also their word. - is that it's done with props to help center your thoughts and remind you of what's important. We tend to hold on to pagan symbols of holidays without remembering what they mean. Easter, despite its Christian popularity, is still all about the egg, the rabbit, and the moon. For Samhain, this is the apple.
Of course, there's a seasonal reason for the apple, too. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, apples are harvested from August (early varietals) to October. In October and November, you've got more apples than you can eat. That's why they feature so prominently in Thanksgiving.
For the ancient Celts, apples had a similar place in Samhain feasting and a year-round symbolism. They saw the blooming of the apple tree in the spring as a symbol of love and fertility. Like love, apples grow and ripen throughout the year, and once harvested, they keep a long, long time. When the fruit turns to rot, because the death of the body is inevitable, what remains behind are the seeds (and their arrangement within the apple as a holy pentagram gave this double weight for the Celts) from which life and love will bloom again. And it's natural if it takes a long, long time for that to happen.
One Samhain apple tradition strikes me as typical of teenagers: You'd peel an apple, trying to get that good long continuous peel, and then you'd throw the peel over your shoulder and see if it landed in the shape of the first initial of your future spouse.
We owe the association of apples and Halloween to the Romans. Around the same time of year, ancient Romans celebrated their goddess of fruitful abundance, Pomona (who has no Grecian equivalent! She's actually Roman). Pomona's attribute was the paring knife, and she was often depicted wearing a crown of apples. After the Romans conquered the Celts, Samhain continued among the mixed population and apples found a larger focus as a symbol of the holiday, while losing their meaning as a symbol of love. Some sources say that the game of bobbing for apples was developed around this time.
The resonance with the dead is ubiquitous, because it's pretty hard for most cultures to avoid the idea that winter means death. It certainly hasn't left our modern interpretation of the holiday, with our love of spooky ghost stories and skeletons, as well as the Christian All Saints and All Souls Days. Nearly every tradition has a way in which it takes this time to honor the dead. In Mexico, today is Dia de Muertos. Celtic and many other pagan traditions suggest you set up a west facing altar (temporary or permanent, sometimes it's basically a knickknack shelf), and place on it mementos from your loved ones. No matter what else you have planned today, you can squeeze a few moments of quiet reflection in to honor and remember those you have loved.
Sit quietly and think of friends and loved ones who have passed away. Do not despair, know that they have gone on to great things.
-Scott Cunningham, "Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner"
St Francis of Assisi wrote, IMHO the ultimate explanation of the feelings that a death imparts upon the living:
Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given.
So take a few moments today, whatever traditions you embrace, to remember all that you have been given by those who no longer walk with you. Take a moment to feel the love that isn't gone just because they are.
Tonight is a night of transition, so we wish our loved ones peace as they journey where we cannot follow.