What is Halloween & Samhain?

If you were to ask someone just what it is we celebrate on Halloween, very few will know the exact answer and will probably tell you it’s something to do with Witches, Ghosts and the Dead?

But what is the origin of these spooky festivities? Why do we dress up as ghouls, skeletons, tortured victims, headless lords, witches and warlocks?

Why do we carve out pumpkins and Turnips, bob for apples and trick or treat?

Through the passage of time cultures, traditions and belief systems have influenced the way we celebrate today.

Both Samhain and Halloween are celebrated on October 31st – Northern Hemisphere, but what’s the difference between the Festival of Samhain and that of Halloween?

One notable difference is that most people are not even aware of Samhain and only know the night to be called ‘Halloween’.

So how do we know for sure what we are celebrating? Firstly, it’s necessary to look back in time to see which came first!

Samhain pronounced ‘sow en’ reaches thousands of years back into early European Celtic roots. The Celtic culture, religion and beliefs were strongly tuned into the earth and sky around them, including the cycles of nature, the arrival of the different seasons & stages of the sun, moon and stars.

The important dates on their calendars were marked by these seasonal changes. They gave great respect to nature and knew that winter would be a harsh time for them and they must prepare well and work with the season in order to survive. They believed that they were part of this continuous regeneration of the earth – the sacred circle of life!

Samhain became the mark of the first day of winter and the start of the Celtic New Year. The ancient astrologers had calculated that November 1st was the exact half way point between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice (winter solstice was midwinter – the return of the sun).

There is some debate over whether the Celtic New Year started at Samhain or at winter solstice but, as their days always began at sunset, when darkness came, it seems significant that the New Year should start at Samhain, when the winter darkness begins

The astrologers also believed that this time was a kind of no-mans land and signified a thinning of the ‘veil’ between those who lived on the earthly plane and those on the spiritual and in other realms! Therefore, the doorways to and from these other worlds opened up for a time!

When Samhain was approaching, the earth was beginning to draw it’s energy within, preparing for sleep and regeneration, the vegetation was dying and the cold, dark winter months and baron lands lay ahead. And so communities would work together harvesting and storing crops, berries and herbs, bringing cattle out of the open fields and into the sheltered barns & homes. They would sacrifice animals to their Gods, in order to give thanks for the food & to gain protection, then prepare and preserve the meats to sustain them through the long winter months.

The climax of the harvesting would be to hold a feast at the sunset of October the 31st, the first day of November – Samhain and the start of the New Year!

The feast was known as ‘The Feast of the Dead’ (‘Fleadh nan Mairbh’) and, in tune with the sleeping earth, it was a time for reflection of the year just passed, introspection & to commemorate those loved ones that had passed over and to welcome them back in through the ‘open door’ to share the feast.

A verse may have been chanted at the beginning of the feast and would have been similar to this known one:

“And so it is, we gather again, The feast of our dead to begin. Our Ancients, our Ancestors we invite, Come! And follow the setting of the sun. Whom do we call? We call them by name (Name your ancestors that you wish to welcome.) The Ancients have come! Here with us stand Where ever the country, where ever the land They leave us not, to travel alone; Flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone! Grandmothers, Grandfathers, Great be their Power! Past ones and present-at this very hour! Welcome within are the dead who are kin, Feast here with us and rest here within Our hearth is your hearth and welcome to thee; Old tales to tell and new visions to see!”

Not only this, but as the door was open to ‘other realms’, this would include the Lands of the Sidhe – pronounced ‘shee’ – or the Faery Realm! The sharing of food and the laying out of offerings was an intention to gain favor with such powerful beings and avoid any ill fortune or mischief in the dark winter months ahead (Trick or Treat!!)

Samhain was said to be a very potent time for magic and divination. Druids would perform rituals for communicating with the dead and of divining the future.

Cakes were baked with hidden tokens of luck, promising fortune to those who found them.

It was custom to light a candle to signify the ‘New Year’ and a great bonfire was set by the chief Druid. On this, members of the communities would sacrifice animals and crops to the Celtic deities and the fire would become sacred.

Hearth fires would be extinguished only to be re-lit by family members lighting a torch from this great, sacred fire and carrying it all the way back to rekindle their own hearth fires. These hearth fires were kept continuously burning until Beltan or Bealtaine arrived – the start of the Celtic summertime. It was extremely bad luck if the fire was left to go out before this!

The tradition of carving out turnips, beets and potatoes and lighting a candle inside was said to ward off evil spirits. This practice obviously led to the ‘Jack-O-Lantern’ fable about a damned soul, popular with the later Catholic religion, particularly in America where the turnip was replaced by the Pumpkin.

Winter apples were one of the main harvest fruits and therefore used prominently for the festivities. It is not true that the Roman influence of Pomona, the Goddess of the fruit tree, symbolized by the apple had anything to do with Samhain. They were celebrated on completely different dates and not merged as some may think

Christianity & Halloween

Several hundred years after the death of Christ, the Christian church had gathered enough influence within Celtic lands to establish a day of honoring the deaths of their Martyrs, it was on 609AD that Pope Boniface IV designated May 13th to remember all martyrs.

However this date was changed in 837AD, Pope Gregory IV extended the festival to include all of the saints and changed the date to November 1st, the day was called ‘All Hallows Day’.

Moving the date was an attempt to Christianize the pagan festival of the dead. The evening of October 31st was changed to ‘All Hallows Eve’ – the evening before ‘All Saints Day’. Or, as we call it today, Halloween – Hallow’en!

In A.D.1000 the church further made November 2nd ‘All Souls Day’ to include all those who had died in the name of Christianity, not just the Saints and Martyrs. It was celebrated similar to that of Samhain with big bonfires, parades and dressing up with Christian symbolism of devils, the bloodied & tortured Saints and biblical angels!

The combination of the three days was then called Hallowmass.

How To Celebrate Halloween & Samhain Today!

The Christian festival of Halloween is ONLY about commemorating those who have died in the name of Christianity and perhaps a reminder about our own fragile mortality.

If you see those dressed as evil witches remember, it is Christianity and it’s infamous witch hunts that originally portrayed witchcraft as evil. The Christian philosophy has always been to convert others to Christianity and it’s damnation of paganism was (and still is) a mightily effective one!

The Celtic or Wiccan ‘Witch’ in fact, treasured the earth and it’s sacred cycles. Rather than ‘evildoers’, they were the highly respected and important healers of the society. They had knowledge of herbal remedies and medicine and worked in tune with the forces of nature to help others. They felt the earth and all of it’s creatures should live in harmony and balance!

The modern Witch of our day will more likely spend the evening of Samhain meditating in quiet reflection. Remembering those that have passed over, the year just gone and all they have learned. Perhaps they will partake of ‘the feast of the dead’ and offer a plate for those missing at their table.

Perhaps, and let us hope so, they will perform their dignified ceremonies of thanks, forgiveness and hope for the future of ALL mankind!