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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Halloween and Samhain: Just What Are They Anyway?

Every year, we enjoy Halloween parties and trick-or-treating, but what are we really celebrating on Halloween?
Every year, we enjoy Halloween parties and trick-or-treating, but what are we really celebrating on Halloween?

This Sunday is Halloween, yay! It’s one of my favorite holidays. And I’m not alone. Halloween’s quite popular. But, over the years, I’ve heard people ask, “What are we celebrating on Halloween anyway?” I’ve met others who were completely against the holiday, contending it is a celebration of evil. It is not. However, some people feel uncomfortable with Halloween’s origin in the Celtic holy day of Samhain, believing anything pagan must be evil. This week’s post will look at Samhain and All Hallows’ Eve, comparing and contrasting their themes and folk customs. Hopefully, this article will help clarify what these festivals are about.

Holy Days and Holidays

While Halloween has its roots in the pagan holy day of Samhain, it was first established as a Christian holy day. Yes, you read that correctly. A Christian holy day. Here’s the history. The pre-Christian Celts annually celebrated Samhain, a festival that marks the end of autumn, the beginning of winter, and the transition from the old year to the new. A major feature of Samhain is honoring the ancestors, those who have moved on to the Otherworld. The communal celebration which, for the ancient Celts, included gathering around a bonfire, offering prayers and sacrifices of food, primarily cattle and grains, started at sunset on October 31st. The feast day continued through sunset on November 1st.

An important aspect of Samhain is honoring the ancestors.
An important aspect of Samhain is honoring the ancestors.

After the Celts converted to Christianity, they kept many of their pagan customs, especially those associated with the fire festival of Samhain. To encourage the new Celtic Christians to stop celebrating the pagan holy day, the Catholic Church did two things. It moved the date of All Hallows’ (now called All Saints Day) from May to November 1st. A vigil with prayers for the Christian feast day began the evening before. So, October 31st became known as All Hallows’ Evening. Over time, this phrase contracted into the word Hallowe’en.

The Celts took the Christian holy day on board but, to the Church’s frustration, they continued to celebrate Samhain. This is understandable because All Saints’ Day ignored a crucial component of Samhain: the honoring of the ancestors. In response to this, the Catholic Church created a new feast: All Souls’ Day. Observed on November 2nd, All Souls’ is a day of remembrance of “the faithful departed,” in other words, all those who have passed on and are believed now to be in heaven. The Christian Celts embraced this second new holy day but still held on to some aspects of Samhain, and those linger to this day.

The Relatives are Coming…Back From the Dead

Halloween decorations typically include pumpkins, witches, black cats, vampires, bats, ghosts, and skeletons. My post Food and Decorations for a Very Celtic Halloweendiscusses the Celtic roots of all those symbols, but ghosts and skeletons most strongly echo Samhain. The pre-Christian Celts believed each person had a soul and, when the person died, his or her soul lived on in the Otherworld. They believed the Otherworld and this one were separated by a veil. At Samhain, that barrier became so thin, the inhabitants of each world could cross into the other. Additionally, the Celts believed that, at Samhain, the souls of the ancestors, especially those who had died during the year, would return home for a visit. Food was laid out for the returning relative. A chair was set near the fireplace so the guest could sit and warm himself. These family ghosts were very much welcomed back.

At Samhain, inhabitants of the Otherworld can cross over into this world.
At Samhain, inhabitants of the Otherworld can cross over into this world.

The problem, though, with the annual thinning of the veil was that friendly relatives weren’t the only ones who crossed over into the human world. All the inhabitants of the Otherworld flooded into the mortal realm. So from sunset on Samhain’s Eve until sunset the next day, any human foolish enough to be wandering the streets and fields was likely to encounter a ghost, a faerie, or some other supernatural being. Many of those beings were out to cause mischief and some of them were downright malevolent. In response, Celts who had to go out, disguised themselves in order either to hide from a revenge-seeking spirit or to blend in with the supernatural beings.

Today, the practice of children roaming the streets dressed as ghosts, skeletons, witches, and so forth comes from these Samhain beliefs and practices. Some scholars say that the medieval English custom of going a-souling (children going door to door, promising to pray for souls and receiving cake in payment) also contributed to the development of trick-or-treating.

An Intensely Magical Time

Samhain is a transitional time. It marks the end of autumn and the beginning of winter. On the Celtic calendar, it is the end of the year and the beginning of the new year. It also is the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the dark half. For the ancient Celts, in-betweens, such as boundary lines or twilight, were places where magic happened. Samhain was a giant in-between and, because of this, the Celts considered it a potently magical time. This magic, they believed, could be tapped into. Primarily, to be used for divination. The Druids engaged in divination rituals to discover what the new year had in store for the community and how to prepare for or avoid dangers. In addition, healers picked herbs as the plants were said to be filled with powerful energy if harvested on Samhain. But everyday Celts engaged in divination just for the fun of it. People, especially young girls, played games with apples, mirrors, hazelnuts, and other common items to discover the identity of their future spouse, to discover how long they’d live, and whether or not they’d be rich or poor. Today, Halloween still has a reputation as a time of heightened magic and supernatural activity.

Halloween decorations tend to reflect Samhain's association with the harvest and magic.
Halloween decorations tend to reflect Samhain's association with the harvest and magic.

Harvest Festival

Halloween decorations, food, and drink usually are distinctly autumnal. Scarecrows, Indian corn, straw bales, and other harvest-related items are commonly used as decorations. Apples, cider, pumpkin, and other fall fruits and vegetables tend to feature on Halloween party menus. This could be simply due to the holiday occurring in the fall, but a direct connection with Samhain can be made too. Samhain celebrated the end of the harvest. The fruits of the harvest were offered up as sacrifices. Then the community gathered around the bonfire and feasted on the autumnal bounty.

Reclaiming What’s Been Lost

There is no doubt children revel in Halloween, and the holiday calls forth many an adult’s inner child. For those adults, though, who feel Halloween lacks substance and/or meaning, I suggest this incorporating some of the spiritual aspects of All Saints, All Souls, and Samhain that over the centuries, have been lost from the celebration of All Hallows’ Eve.

For example, think about a beloved family member who has died. Welcome that person into your heart and consciousness, meditating on what he or she meant to you and what he/she contributed to the world. What are the gifts and lessons she/he has given you that you can share with others? Alternatively, you could do some genealogical research on a relative from generations back. Get to know a bit about that person and be open to how he or she speaks to you through what you discover.

Finally, you could reflect on some of the themes of Samhain. If you are Christian, as I am, don’t be deterred by the pagan origin of the feast day. Samhain has been co-opted by some groups who have distorted it and tied it to dark magic. But the ancient Celtic fire festival has deeply spiritual themes and beautiful symbolism. For example, Samhain is very much about the cycle of life, death, rebirth that Christians call the paschal mystery. To find out more about Samhain, read my 2020 post about the holy day by clicking here.

Have a safe and happy Halloween! Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s post. Please LIKE and SHARE. To SUBSCRIBE for FREE, just click on the “Sign Up” button in the upper right of the page.

Slan go foil!

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