Samhain - The Celtic New Years Eve
Samhain is also known as the witch's new year and it occurs on October 31st and November 1st and, among other things. Samhain Gaelic word pronounced “SAH-win”) is a pagan religious festival originating from an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition
The Ancient Festival of Samhain highlights the last day of the Celtic year, with the rising of the sun on the following morning illuminating the New Year and the turning of the wheel. Samhain Eve marked the Celtic New Year’s Eve. Samhain is the necessary incubation period on our wheel of seasons.
Celtic Irish historian, Geoffrey Keating, wrote in his seminal work, The History of Ireland, that all fires were to be extinguished at the start of the Samhain festival. The druids, the ancient Celtic priests, would light a new bonfire, into which the bones of the animal as sacrifices would be tossed (this “bone-fire” gives us our modern word 'bonfire').
It is not exactly known what would have taken place, but historians believe the festivities included animal sacrifices, dancing, and the donning of costumes made from animal skins, and possibly, animal heads.
Since the connection to the spirit world was stronger than usual - Samhain was considered an auspicious time for the druids to practice divination. The lifting of the veil between the Otherworld and the physical world meant that Samhain was also considered to be a perilous time for the ancient Celts. Alongside them travel our ancestors and other spirits we fail to recognize. It is a night filled with magic!
The Celtic Otherworld is often described as existing in tandem with, as opposed to completely separate from, the human world. During Samhain, these realms converged and passage between them was easier. Spirits, both kind and malevolent, could act with more powerful agency on the human world.
As they watched the sun descend into the western skies, the symbolic inference was that of a descent into the Otherworld. This marked the thinning of the veil, as those within the Otherworld were free to roam the Earth. The Celts believed that the barrier between worlds was breachable during Samhain, so they prepared offerings that were left outside villages and fields for fairies, or Sidhs.
The Sidhe, (fairies as we know them, for we know so little of them) have the power of shapeshifting are deemed able to walk among us, unknown and unrecognizable to mortals.
It was expected that ancestors might cross over during this time as well, and Celts would dress as animals and monsters so that fairies were not tempted to kidnap them.
Some specific monsters were associated with the mythology surrounding Samhain, including a shape-shifting creature called a Pukah that receives harvest offerings from the field. The Lady Gwyn is a headless woman dressed in white who chases night wanderers and was accompanied by a black pig.
The Dullahan sometimes appeared as impish creatures, sometimes headless men on horses who carried their heads. Riding flame-eyed horses, their appearance was a death omen to anyone who encountered them.
A group of hunters known as the Faery Host might also haunt Samhain and kidnap people. Similar are the Sluagh, who would come from the west to enter houses and steal souls.
Samhain in the Middle Ages
As the Middle Ages progressed, so did the celebrations of the fire festivals. Bonfires known as Samghnagans, which were more personal Samhain fires nearer the farms, became a tradition, purportedly to protect families from fairies and witches.
The tradition of “dumb supper” began during this time, in which food was consumed by celebrants but only after inviting ancestors to join in, giving the families a chance to interact with the spirits until they left following dinner.
Children would play games to entertain the dead, while adults would update the dead on the past year’s news. That night, doors and windows might be left open for the dead to come in and eat cakes that had been left for them.
Samhain Merges with Halloween
Neither new holiday did away with the pagan aspects of the celebration. October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, and contained much of the traditional pagan practices before being adopted in 19th-century America through Irish immigrants bringing their traditions across the ocean.
Trick or treating is said to have been derived from ancient Irish and Scottish practices in the nights leading up to Samhain. In Ireland, mumming was the practice of putting on costumes, going door to door singing songs to the dead. Cakes were given as payment.
Halloween pranks also have a tradition in Samhain, though in the ancient celebration, tricks were typically blamed on fairies.
Wicca and Samhain
A broad revival of Samhain resembling its traditional pagan form began in the 1980s with the growing popularity of Wicca.
Wicca celebration of Samhain takes on many forms, from the traditional fire ceremonies to celebrations that embrace many aspects of modern Halloween, as well as activities related to honoring nature or ancestors.
Wiccans look at Samhain as the passing of the year, and incorporate common Wiccan traditions into the celebration.
In the Druid tradition, Samhain celebrates the dead with a festival on October 31 and usually features a bonfire and communion with the dead. American pagans often hold music and dance celebrations called Witches’ Balls in proximity to Samhain
Pagans who embrace Celtic traditions with the intent of reintroducing them faithfully into modern paganism are called Celtic Reconstructionist.
In this tradition, Samhain is called Oiche Shamnhna and celebrates the mating between Tuatha de Danaan gods Dagda and River Unis. Celtic Reconstructionists celebrate by placing juniper decorations around their homes and creating an altar for the dead where a feast is held in honor of deceased loved ones.
Samhain: Rituals, Recipes and Lore for Halloween. Diana Rajchel.
The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. Jean Markale.
Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. Lisa Morton.
Celtic Gods and Heroes. Marie-Louise Sjoestedt.