The community gathers. Darkness descends. The end is near. A spark ignites and grows into a bonfire. Happy New Year! The Celtic festival of Samhain is the origin of modern day Halloween, but it was so much more than a time to dress up and have some fun. It also marked the beginning of the Celtic new year and the ending of the old. It was a religious as well as a social celebration. And it wasn’t just one night. It was a three-day event. Oh yes, and it was mandatory.
Halloween primarily takes place at night. Kids go out trick-or-treating usually just as the sky starts to become dark. Samhain also began at dusk because that’s when Celtic days began. Always. At sunset. Samhain, like Halloween was a social event. The entire community gathered together. They had finished the harvest and they brought some of the fruits of their labor with them to share with the community. A large bonfire was lit. Cattle were sacrificed, roasted and eaten. So, in a way, it was a big block party barbeque. But there were serious aspects to Samhain that have disappeared as it has transitioned into Halloween.
Samhain had a religious aspect to it, not just a social one. The Celts were agrarian so the weather and the seasons tremendously impacted their lives. They divided the year into two halves: the light and the dark. Samhain was the start of the new year and the beginning of the dark half. The harvest was in and the long, cold grey of winter was at the doorstep. Celtic people had to hope—and pray—that they had harvested enough food to sustain them until the earth came alive again in the Spring. Samhain was one of four fire festivals (and scholars believe it was the most important one). In part, it honored the sun god, Lugh, who, the Celts believed, went to the underworld during this dark time. Prayers and sacrifices were offered and rituals were done in order to encourage Lugh’s return. Druid priests practiced divination to discover what lie ahead in the new year. So Samhain was a communal festival, but one held as a way to ease grave anxieties.
Surviving the winter and getting the sun to come back were issues which impacted every member of the society, and every member had a responsibility to help in the effort. It’s not surprising then that attendance at the communal ritual celebration was mandatory. Each member had to check in with the druid priests or at least their clan chieftain. And there were strict rules regarding behavior. No weapons were allowed at the celebration and anyone caught fighting was subject to execution. Did I mention that the Celts took Samhain seriously?
There were fun aspects as well. The celebration lasted three days and nights. In addition to the feast, there were games, especially having to do with fortune-telling. Samhain was a highly magical, mystical time. The veil which the Celts believed separated the human world from the Otherworld was at its thinnest at Samhain which made contacting spirits much easier than usual. When Celtic society converted to Christianity, Samhain was Christianized into the three religious feasts of All Hallows Evening, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, but the Celts held onto many of the Samhain practices. So even into the twentieth century, good Celtic Christian girls gazed into mirrors on Samhain, hoping to see the face of the person they’d marry or peeled an apple and let the peel fall and curve into the initial of their true love’s name. Apples were a part of many Samhain games and bobbing for apples is believed to have its origin in Samhain. By the Middle Ages, Celts had begun a version of trick-or-treat which is believed to have come from Samhain activities. The Celts also entertained themselves by telling stories about ghosts and other supernatural beings, especially faeries. A Samhain pastime for the brave (or the very foolish) was to go to a graveyard at midnight and walk three times around a grave in order to see a vision. Unfortunately there was no guarantee of what or who what would be conjured up.
Looking for the supernatural was a risky practice any time of the year but particularly at Samhain. Since the veil between the worlds was so thin at this time, not only could a human contact a being from the Otherworld, those beings could crossover into the mortal world. And they did. At Samhain, according to Celtic belief, ghosts, faeries, and others from that world were free to roam the streets, especially at night. Going out after sunset almost insured an encounter with them. Ghosts might or might not be malicious. One never knew. The faeries, on the other hand, were a certain danger. Celtic lore says the faeries were out and about on Samhain looking for humans to kidnap. But there were faeries with even more nefarious intentions. The Sluagh Sidhe, who resembled crows when they flew across the night sky, went in search of souls. That’s not a metaphor. They really wanted to steal your soul and, if they were successful, you would be enslaved by them and forced to spend eternity helping them collect more souls. The Dullahan, a fusion of headless horseman / grim reaper, brought death with him (or he might just throw a bucket of blood in your face, if you were lucky). The Puca, a shape-shifter, might appear as a huge bogeyman and terrorize you or sneak up from behind and toss you into a ditch. Even if you stayed inside, he might show up at your door, disguised as an ugly goblin and demand his share from your harvest.
So how did Celts get safely to the communal celebration which happened, remember, after the sun set? Well, traveling in a group helped. Lone travelers were at much greater risk of being attacked. Also, the Celts dressed up like faeries, ghosts, and so forth in the hopes of just blending in and being left unnoticed by the supernatural beings. Also they brought torches with them. The believed that fire helped ward off evil beings. Travel to the opening of the festival may have been a little dicey though since all fires had to be extinguished on Samhain until the sacred bonfire was lit. Of course Samhain started at sunset, so perhaps participants had an incentive to get to this ritual gathering early.
Once the bonfire was ablaze, everyone lit their torches from it. When they returned home, they started their hearth fire from the part of the communal flame they brought back with them. This fire would not only keep them warm during the long winter. They believed it would protect them and their property from the forces of darkness.
The celebration and the ritual continued at the family home. After lighting the fireplace, they set out food and invited the ancestors in. That is, they invited family members who had passed on, especially those who had died within the past year, to come back for a visit. Chairs were set by the hearth so the Otherworldly guests could rest themselves after their long journey, and food, usually in the form of cakes, was put out for them to eat. Any food the ancestors left uneaten was consumed by the family and / or shared with the community. While this practice may seem like a great excuse for making some goodies for the family, Celtic society insisted on this ritual hospitality as an important part of Samhain. People ignored the custom at their peril. Anyone who failed to adhere to it, risked curses and dire misfortune in the coming year.
Death is a major theme associated with Samhain. Certainly, not getting a sufficient harvest or not surviving the dark winter months contributed to this association, but the death theme was neither morbid nor entirely gloomy. The Celts viewed death as another birth. It was a continuation of the journey. Celtic society—both pagan and Christian—believed in life after death. The seasonal timing of this celebration reinforces the death-into-life concept. The old year died. The new began. The crops were harvested and earth itself seemed to die during the winter months, but the hope was that it would spring to new life. To the Celts, time didn’t go in a straight line; it was circular. Human existence, as well, follow a cyclical pattern of life to death to rebirth. And that is one of the powerful messages of Samhain: darkness will turn to light, cold will return to warmth, and life will follow death. Happy Samhain!
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Next week's post: The Celtic roots of Arthurian legend.