What is Halloween Teaching Us?

by Ryan Wade

A Time to Remember / A Time to Prepare

So long as you are living in the Northern Hemisphere, there is no denying—no ignoring—that fall is upon us. Autumn is upon us. The days are decidedly shorter, decidedly darker, and even a bright and sunny day is just—well—not that bright and sunny as they were just a few shorts months ago.

And it is not just a shorter day that we are experiencing: As the sun reaches not even half-way above the horizon—as it does now—the quality of light that touches us is different than it is in summer. Here in Vermont, as it is in northern areas throughout the world, fall is that point in the year where we transition to the annual period of cold and dark. Winter. The restorative season.

Autumn Feeds Winter

Transitions within the Five Elements

In Chinese Five Element theory, autumn is the season of the element Metal. The associated organs of autumn are the Lung (Yin organ) and Large Intestine (Yang organ). The spirit of autumn is the Po. The Po is the Yang spirit that comes from heaven at birth and resides within us until death, where it then descends into the earth. The Po is the animal nature within us—the spirit of thoughts and intentions. While the Po descend into us from heaven, the Po is our corporeal self. It is the human as animal.

The mental quality of autumn is intuition and rationality, and the emotions are bravery and grief. Within the human lifespan, the season of autumn, the element of Metal, is the time of adulthood. In this model, Metal, the element of autumn, feeds Water, the element of winter. Right now, as we celebrate of Halloween, we are making the transition from autumn to winter. Metal is feeding Water.

Winter is the season of the element Water. The associated organs of autumn are the Kidney (Yin organ) and urinary Bladder (Yang organ). The spirit of autumn is the Zhi: The spirit of willpower.

Here, within the Five Element model (as well as many models of Chinese medicine), there resides within us two types of will: The will which can be willed (free will) and the will which cannot be willed (destiny, Jing). The Zhi, the spirit of winter, is the will which can be willed—it is the spirit of free will.

Perhaps the ancients viewed winter as a time of self-reflection, reflecting on the previous years and planning for the years to come. Winter can be a time of asking ourselves the hard questions: Who am I? Who was I? And who do I want to become?

The mental quality of winter is knowledge, wit, and resourcefulness—all practical qualities for both mental (including psycho-emotional) and physical perseverance.

Within the human lifespan, the season of winter, the element of Water, is the time of old age and the age of conception. What can this seemingly duality of age teach us about ourselves? 

Halloween as a time of Transition

So what does Halloween have to do with the transition into the winter months? 

In the past, as days shortened and the cold ushered in, resources dwindled and preparing for the winter months was paramount for survival. Halloween—although not in its current incarnation—appeared in the earliest astronomical calendar systems—calendars which provided a method for recording one’s position within the cyclical seasons. If you weren't prepared for winter you very well might not make it into spring.

Is Halloween an Astronomical Event?

Halloween cannot be observed directly in-terms of astronomy, but it does mark the half-way point of autumn. Halloween resides directly between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. A calendar system is needed to mark this point. And while it may seem like a simple mathematical point between two dates, Halloween did—and does—represent much more than simply a point between two dates: Halloween is the last reminder that we have to prepare, mentally and materially, for the upcoming winter months (and all that those months may entail). 

Our modern Halloween celebrations are most likely rooted in Celtic harvest festivals (some disagree), in particular the Gaelic festival of Samhain. Later, the Christian church appropriated these pagan traditions (as it did with many, many indigenous religious and spiritual belief systems and holidays). In more recent history, Halloween is celebrated on the eve of the the Christian holiday of All Hallows Day (Halloween is a contraction of the words All Hallows’ Evening). All Hallows Day—or Halloween—is the beginning of the three day long observance of Allhallowtide, a time of remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and others that have departed.

Today, the celebration of Dia de Muertos (celebrated throughout Mexico and other areas) may most closely resemble Allhallowtide. Dia de Muertos is a three day long holiday, starting on October 31st, where the festivities focus on gathering with friends and family, praying and remember those that have died and passed, supporting their spiritual joined and—of course—keeping their memories alive and paying respect and homage.

It could be thought—as it is thought—that Halloween marks the point in the year where the separation between the living and the dead, the separation between life and the afterlife, is the thinnest. Perhaps it is now that the gauzy vail of which we wear and of which prevents us from seeing the other side is pulled the tightest, pulled the tautest, and through this we are just able to see—not clearly, but rough shapes and outlines—that which resides beyond our scope, beyond our day-to-day vision and beyond out day-to-day conception.

Halloween, as mentioned above, resides between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. It is the the transition. If at Halloween we are closer now between life and afterlife than at any other time of the year, are we not just speaking of another type of transition? The transition between life and death? As we move from Metal (the fixed and the solid) into Water (the mobile and the fluid), from our corporeal self the Po and into the immaterial Zhi, are we not also transcending our physically, too?

The Supermarket and the Furnace

Our distant ancestors didn’t have the luxuries of today to aid them through a long winter: No supermarkets, no electric lighting, no furnace in the basement keeping the house warm. They couldn't just order what they needed from Amazon. It is difficult to really embody the understanding that today we are only separated from these times by a handful of generations. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that electricity became common in homes in urban areas (and even more recent in rural areas) throughout the US. That’s the same decade my grandparents were born. Most came from rural parts of the US.

With all of the luxuries we enjoy—and all of the luxuries which keep us alienated from the natural world we live in and the natural world which guided the lives of our ancestors—it is easy to forget to acknowledge this point in the year where we are on the cusp of the cold months. That is, we often forget to acknowledge—to see—how our lives are still governed not just by the manufactured world we live, but are governed within the natural world that lives within us, around us, throughout us.

The lessons of the winter live deeply within our very own DNA. As such, let us take Halloween as the reminder it once stood for: A time to prepare, mentally and materially, for the upcoming winter months and all that they entail. And let us not forget our homework for the winter: Who am I become? We are all becoming, whether we acknowledge it or not, so we may as well exert our will—our Zhi—upon it.

In 2016 we sent out our Witches' Qi Elixir: Eleven Cauldron Flavors blog. This was a play on the classic Rehmannia Six Formula (Liuwei Dihuang Wan)—a deeply restorative formula for the Kidney, Spleen, and Liver Qi. It's a formula that helps us store resources for a long winter.

The blog was part informative and part fun. Humor is, after all, one of the most potent medicines. And when it humor faces the incurable, humor can lubricate the transition ahead.

It's a fun blog post, and we even—accidentally and unintentionally— convinced more than a couple customers that we were coming out with this formula (it's a fine formula, after all). 

In sum, however you choose to celebrate this half-way point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, whether that be with cheap candy and plastic jack-o-lanterns or in celebration of the spiritual journeys of our ancestors and passed loved ones, let us all take a moment of gratitude and respect for those that have existed here with us, before us, for the changing of the seasons, and for the way the seasons still live within our bones and the way those seasons still govern our experiences, our health, our lives.