Samhain, pronounced, “SOW-in, SAW-vin, or SHA-vin” is defined as “end of summer”. Also known as November Eve, Feast of the Dead, and Feast of Apples, Samhain is a Gaelic festival that marks the time between harvest season and the beginning of winter. It is referenced as the period of time known as the “darker-half”. Although it is commemorated on November 1st, festivities are held on the eve of October 31st as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset.
For the Celts, who lived during the Iron Age in what is now Ireland, Scotland, the U.K. and other parts of Northern Europe, Samhain (meaning literally, in modern Irish, “summer’s end”) marked the end of summer and kicked off the Celtic new year.
Various other names for this Greater Sabbat are Third Harvest, Samana, Old Hallowmas (Scottish/Celtic), Vigil of Saman, Shadowfest (Strega), and Samhuinn. Samhain is now generally considered the Witch’s New Year. Some Celtic Wiccans and Druids call it Calan Gaeaf, Calan Gwaf, Kala-Goanv, or Nos Galan Gaeof. In Welsh, it is Nos Cyn Calan Gaual. It also is known as Oie Houney. A medieval book of tales, the Yellow Book of Lecan, reports that common folk called it the “Feast of Mongfind,” the legendary Witch-Queen who married a King of Tara in old Ireland. In the ancient Coligny Calendar, an engraved bronze dating from the first century C.E.and dug up in 1897 in France, Samhain is called Trinouxtion Samonii, or “Three Nights of the End of Summer.” Variant spellings of Samhain include Samain, Samuin, and Samhuinn.
We are taken back into Celtic Pagan history in which it is noted in early 9th century Irish literature that Neolithic Passage Tombs, also known as Passage Graves, are aligned with the sunrise at the time of Samhain. Passage Tombs consist of one or more burial chambers underground that are connected by narrow passageways lined with stone. The interior of Passage Graves varies in number of burials, shape, and other aspects. Those with more than one chamber may have multiple sub-chambers leading off from the main burial chamber. One common interior layout, the cruciform passage grave, is cross-shaped, although prior to the Christian Era and thus having no Christian associations.
Passage Graves are constructed and aligned in such a way that during the sunrise on the Winter Solstice, or the sunset of the Autumn Equinox, sunlight is able to shine through the passage into the burial chamber.
Samhain was celebrated with plentiful feasts, gatherings, and the opening of great burial mounds to honor the dead during the thinning of the veil between this world and the next.
The sabbat of the Feast of the Dead was honored by offerings of food on doorsteps and altars to feed the wandering dead. Single candles were lit to offer light for spirits and ancestors trying to find their way home through the dark. Extra chairs were placed at the dining tables to include the spirits and ancestors in family meals. Apples were buried along roadsides, to mark the pathway for spirits and ancestors who were lost. Today, we see remnants of this tradition in the popular activity of bobbing for apples in a tub of water. Turnips were hollowed out and carved, to represent protective spirits, in order to ward off evil, trickery, or pranks. Today, we carry on the tradition through the carving out of pumpkins into contorted faces, lit with the glow of candlelight inside.
Samhain was a night of magic and chaos, honoring the Dark Father and Dark Mother, symbolized by the Crone and her aged Consort. Dark mysteries were sought after, and hidden knowledge was made available from beyond the veil. Seances were held to commune with spirits that had crossed over, to reach spirit guides, or share conversations with ancestors. Divination circles were held, and magical offerings were given in honor of spirits that participated. Psychic channeling was said to be at peak performance. Dreams delivered prophetic messages and the planes of existence between the living and dead were merged.
Individual hearth fires were lit on the eve of Samhain in leu of the celebrations but extinguished that evening to prepare for the large communal ritual Bonfire that would be lit the following day, November 1st. Food and kindling was collected from each home to contribute to the ritual bonfire.
The word Bonfire is derived from a middle English word, Bonefire, which stands for Bone and Fire, or, a Fire of Bones. The words, ignis ossium, are Latin for Fire of Bones, seen in 15th century folk-etymology. Ceremonially, crops and the bones of animals were burnt in the Bonfires as offerings to commemorate the spirits and ward off sickness or bad fortune. The sacred fires were believed to have the power to ward off evil spirits, lending tradition to gathering around the Bonfire for protection. To participate, people would dress in costumes made of animal skins and skulls to scare away any evil spirits that dare come near or try to harm anyone. They were disguises to intimidate evil spirits, making them flee from fear, in order to ensure protection of the people. This custom can be seen similarly in the way Gargoyles are used atop churches or gothic buildings to scare away evil spirits as a means to protect those inside. On the following day once the fires had died out, the ashes were then taken to spread by the farmers in their crop fields, to ensure plentiful crops and harvests the following season. It was a way to bless the land for a prosperous bounty.
In 1793, Sir John Sinclair wrote in a statistical account of Scotland, that consecrated cakes were baked on November 1st, at the time Bonfires were lit, to welcome in the first day of winter. In North Wales, it was customary to jump through the autumnal fires, named Coel Coeth, during their ceremonial Bonfires. “Soul Cakes” being a possible carry over from the baking of consecrated cakes, were offered to the poor during All Hallow’s Eve in Catholic Lancashire. These cakes were made of a combination of oatmeal and treacle, and used on “Cake Night” which is known today as Halloween. In remote parts of the Highlands and Western Ireland, Soul Cakes were provided as offerings to the departed souls, since it was believed that it was the only night that souls could appear, speak, and eat.
In the 9th Century, the Church moved to adopt many of the customs of Samhain to attract more people to Christianity. Celtic traditions were reframed with a Christian narrative in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the pagan practices while spreading the new religion. That reframing created many of the Halloween traditions that people still participate in today. Samhain was renamed All Saints Day or All Souls Day, and November 1st and 2nd were dedicated as the significant dates to honor Saints and Martyrs instead of on October 31st. This crossover of hijacked traditions from non-Christian traditions eventually merged together into various customs we now are familiar with and celebrate as modern-day Halloween. Halloween is short for All Hallow’s Eve which tends to be more family focused, whereas, Samhain is regarded more as a time for spiritual observance by practitioners.
Samhain can be observed over the course of several days and nights, and these extended observances usually include a series of solo rites as well as ceremonies, feasts, and gatherings with family, friends, and spiritual community. The timing of contemporary Samhain celebrations varies according to spiritual tradition and geography. In the northern hemisphere, many celebrate Samhain from sundown on October 31 through November 1. Others hold Samhain celebrations on the nearest weekend or on the Full or New Moon closest to this time. Some observe Samhain a bit later, or near November 6, to coincide more closely with the astronomical midpoint between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice. Most people in the southern hemisphere time their Samhain observances to coincide with the middle of their Autumn in late April and early May, rather than at the traditional European time of the holiday.