Samhain, pronounced Sahw-en, occurs on Nov. 1 and literally means “end of summer” in Gaelic. As with the Jews, the Celts started each new day at sundown, so Samhain actually starts at sundown on Oct. 31. It’s a time of rest from the harvest, a time of taking an inventory, as well as the Celtic New Year. It’s also the day when the veil between the material world and the spiritual is the thinnest.
“Kids with costumes asking for candy comes directly from the Celts,” said Quiet Bear, a Celtic high priest in Billings who is identified here by his Wiccan name. “Treats so the spirits wouldn’t play any tricks, costumes really as disguises to fool the spirits.” The Scots still light bonfires on Halloween, another way to ward off the dead.
“From ghoolies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, O Lord deliver us,” says an old Scottish prayer. This is a Christian prayer, uttered by converted pagans with the church’s blessing.
In an attempt to co-opt the pagan holiday, Samhain, the church created All Saint’s Day on Nov. 1, a day to pray for departed relatives. The belief in the return of the dead on Halloween still persists.
“There are several different kinds of ghosts,” said Quiet Bear. “The first is called a haunting. It’s kind of like a hologram. You get a certain event, often traumatic, happening over and over. It’s like a lot of trapped psychic energy, a little video running over and over. It’s not interactional.
“Then there’s the apparition. That’s what most of us think of when we think of ghosts. They’re a once-living person and they can interact with people.” Ghosts stay in the material world for many reasons.
Some of them have unfinished business. Others hang around the place where they were the happiest. Those who have died a sudden and violent death may not know that they’re dead and have to be helped to leave.
“The last one is the poltergeist or noisy ghost,” he continued. “They’re usually associated with children and adolescents who are going through a bad time.”
Ghosts can be either benign or evil. It’s no surprise that happy, cheerful, even playful apparitions are found in pleasant places. Not so, those with evil intent.
“Prisons have particularly malevolent spirits,” said Quiet Bear. The presence of that evil energy adds to the torment to prison life.
Neopagans, as with the earlier practitioners of the Old Religion, believe that on Samhain, they can communicate with the dead. They hold special rites called Dumb Suppers, dumb because everything is done in silence. For 13 days before the holiday, the priest or priestess prays and meditates on something owned by the dead relative.
As in the Native American tradition, no one may communicate with people who have been dead less than a year. They need to be allowed to settle in their life in heaven first.
On the night of the supper, places are assigned so that the living person sits across from their absent loved one. The priest creates sacred space and invites the deceased to visit. The meal is very bland: unleavened bread and squash. The meal lasts an hour or so.
“I had never met my paternal grandfather,” said Quiet Bear. “At the Dumb Supper, I finally connected with him. I asked him, silently, what he did in heaven, and I saw him in a tuxedo conducting an orchestra in front of a stadium full of people.” His grandfather had been a talented musician at the university level.
Do you believe in ghosts and spirits? This gets into a very gray area. If you believe that what’s happening isn’t real, you’re aligned with Scrooge the skeptic, who said that Marley’s ghost was “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese.”
If you lean in the other direction, you will look for a confirmation of the existence of the spirit world. In a CBS poll conducted in February 2009, 48 percent of Americans said they believed in ghosts, with 56 percent of women saying yes, compared to 38 percent of men. I’m a believer.
I met my latest ghost in the Outpost office on the second floor of the old Carlin Hotel while waiting for the arrival of a book I was to review. Time dragged and story topics came up.
“Why don’t you write about ghosts again?” said Shan Cousrouf, the Outpost’s computer wizard. “Everyone likes a good ghost story.”
I then mentioned that the Carlin had some specters of its own. At once, I felt a presence behind me, definitely male, since it was a head taller than my 5 feet 5 inches.
“The ghost is here,” I said. My mystery friend sent me a warm, tingling wave. He was pleased to be acknowledged. The living men didn’t hear me, just chatted on.
“He’s right here in the room with us,” I said, more forcefully. No response, times two. They not only couldn’t feel my spectral friend, they seemed deaf to my words.
The friendly ghost of the Carlin’s second floor left shortly thereafter. Some investigation revealed that footsteps are sometimes heard at night on the second floor, along with jingling keys. This was mid afternoon.
Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” Maybe ghosts are beings only conjured up by faith along with angels and other denizens of another layer of existence or consciousness. Philosophers have asked “What is real?” “Am I real?” through the centuries, with no totally conclusive answer.
Believer or not, ‘tis the season for the supernatural. You can take a supernatural tour of Billings on the Wild and Wicked Billings Ghost Tour from Friday, Oct. 26-31.
Karen Stevens, an expert on haunted Billings, takes groups of 13 to 30 via van and the Tipsy Trolley at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. nightly. Tickets are $25 per seat. Call Billings Adventure Tours at 254-7180 for a reservation.