Dancing with the Dead at Yonge-Dundas Square
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Dancing with the Dead at Yonge-Dundas Square

Toronto pagans gathered on Saturday night for the Wheel, a public celebration of Samhain.

Love it or hate it, Yonge-Dundas Square is the crossroads of Toronto. Not necessarily because it’s the face of anything, or because it somehow represents the city’s character at large, but simply by virtue of being the snarled, heaving, chronically blocked artery through which a majority of the city’s population passes. Stand on the sidewalk opposite the Eaton Centre on any given Saturday and chances are pretty good you’ll see something you don’t expect.

Over the years, the imposingly commercial intersection has been the epicentre of music festivals, protests, and more than a few acts of religious outreach. In 2008, a barricade across Yonge Street separated demonstrators sympathetic with Palestine from those partial to Israel; during the Arab Spring, in February 2011, Yonge-Dundas teemed with close to 400 demonstrators calling for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s ousting. If you want to be seen, it’s the place to be.

But when we arrived at the square on Saturday night, it was for something that, we admit, we never thought we’d see there: a large-scale gathering that organizers claim was Yonge-Dundas’ first-ever pagan festival.

As we approached, so did a number of costumed spectators clad in everything from antlers to peaked witch’s hats, suggesting a division between the Wiccan devout and locals longing for a Halloween holdover. The occasion was the Wheel, a local pagan celebration of the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain.

In terms of contrast, you couldn’t have asked for a more interesting study.

Samhain is one of four seasonal Gaelic festivals. It’s a harvest celebration that also marks the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. “The Wheel” refers to the Wiccan idea of the wheel of time—or, more specifically, the wheel of the year. (In Wiccan cosmology, every time scale is cyclical.) Beyond its meaning in nature, though, Samhain is one of two Gaelic (and later Wiccan) celebrations connected to the transit of the dead through the world of the living. Like the fertility ritual of Beltane, which happens around the first of May, Samhain is a time when the “otherworld” is believed to be closest to the domain of the living, its intangible boundaries more permeable as a result. Pagans celebrate these days by inviting the spirits of the dead to join them, to dance with them, and, for the recently departed, to say a final goodbye before embarking on whatever supernatural journey follows.

Leading up to Saturday’s event, organizers heralded Samhain as “the real Halloween,” which is partly true. Like other festivals bookending the harvest season, Samhain is one of a handful of calendar events that cumulatively led to the modern-day celebration of ghouls, goblins, and gastric agony.

As we waded through the Yonge Street crowds, the rhythm of the Dragon Ritual Drummers—just back from Salem, Massachusetts, of all places—filled the chilly Saturday night air. We passed the usual religious proselytizers, but it was a new addition to the roster of Yonge’s apocalyptic prophets, wandering with a bullhorn into the streetcar tracks in front of the Cineplex, whose presence stood in especially striking contrast to the Wiccan ceremony going on metres away. Perhaps affected by all this 2012 nonsense, the man bellowed with every second sentence that the wrath of Hurricane Sandy, its death toll still rising, would be “nothing” compared to the judgment to come. From a strictly non-religious perspective, it didn’t seem as though his message was a particularly positive one.

Meanwhile, the pagans on the other side of the street continued to dance, inviting death itself to celebrate life.