Samhain – The Celtic New Year
Whether you use the Gaelic pronunciation “Sow-en”, “Sow-ween”, “Sah-ween” or the Americanized version “Sam-hain” (yes that is an acceptable pronunciation), it’s still the biggest holiday on the Pagan Calendar.
It’s the start of the Celtic New Year and honors the year that has passed. It is the time when the veil of forgetfulness is lifted between the physical world and the spiritual world. Where the dead are honored and communication with spirit can take place more than any other time of the year.
For pagans it’s a time of celebration, but it’s also a time of reverence and deep spiritual reflection for the past and the future year to come.
An article by the Library of Congress states: Pagans divided the year by four major holidays. According to their calendar, the year began on a day corresponding to November 1st on our present calendar. The date marked the beginning of winter. Since they were pastoral people, it was a time when cattle and sheep had to be moved to closer pastures and all livestock had to be secured for the winter months. Crops were harvested and stored. The date marked both an ending and a beginning in an eternal cycle.
It’s not a bad synopsis. We do divide the year into Quarters and Cross-quarter ceremonies. A method that creates the balance within the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life within those seasons. The Quarter festivals are the four most reverent festivals observed by pagans. They typically involve a Divine myth and associate the time period with a God or Goddess of the region or a local Hero in a regional legend. Each of these Four major festivals are also called “Fire Festivals”, because they’re associated with the movement of the Sun.
Samhain is a Gaelic word that translates to “Summer’s End”. It marks the end of Summer and the beginning of the Dark Days of Winter. That change in season is what lends the concept to the early Pagan’s as the change in the eternal cycle of life. From winter to summer to winter again. Making this holiday the early Celtic Pagan New Year observation. The Holiday Honors the Dead, both from the past year, and from the Ancestors of the Clan or the Region. It’s also a time for Cleansing and releasing the past, letting go of clutter, old hurts and slights and old ways of thinking.
Now if you think about it, this makes sense for these early peoples. They’re about to prepare their homes for a lot of indoor living. It’s a good time to clean out the clutter and make room. And because they’re going to be stuck inside for long periods of time, letting go of arguments that had occurred over the past year, might make living inside much less stressful and a lot happier for everyone.
For some modern Pagan Traditions, it’s also a time to celebrate the “New” coming year, on a spiritual level. It’s a good time to review your progression on your spiritual path, what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve learned and what you’ve experienced throughout the year. Some Traditions use this time to update their Spiritual Journals, by reviewing What They Believe and how their knowledge and experiences have evolved those beliefs. For others it’s a more practical time to update and prepare a new Book of Shadows, or a Magikal Journal so they have a fresh start for the coming year.
The actual celebrations vary from Pagan Tradition to Tradition. But universally, Pagans begin their celebrations at the same time of day. Pagans follow a Lunar calendar and the day would begin at sunset. Celebrations for holidays therefore would also begin when the sun set and the moon rose. This is why we start our Samhain celebrations at sunset on October 31st and continue them through the night and into the day on November 1st, until the next Sunset.
Where many will say Happy Halloween, the proper salutation for Pagans would be Merry Samhain.
Samhain, dates back to the ancient Celts who lived over 2,000 years ago. Contrary to what some believe, it is not a celebration of a Celtic god of the dead. That’s a concept created by the early Catholic Church who encountered the early Central and South American countries. The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, in particular the Central and South regions, and by people of Mexican heritage elsewhere.
Many today see Halloween as the Pagan holiday. But that’s not really accurate. As the Pagan holiday of Samhain is on November 1st. But our celebrations did and still do, start at sunset on October 31st, on Samhain Eve. During the day on October 31st, the fires within the home are extinguished. Often families would engage in a good “fall” cleaning to clear out the old and make way for the new. Starting the winter months with a fresh and clean household and household items.
At sunset on October 31, Clans or local villages begin the formal ceremonies of Samhain by lighting a giant bonfire. The people of the Clan would gather around the fire to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. It was a method of giving the Gods and Goddesses their share of the previous years herd or crops. A thank you for the Divine blessings through the year. In addition these sacred fires were a big part of the cleansing of the old year and a method to prepare for the coming new year.
During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of Wheel of Life. Their costumes were adorned with decorations for three primary reasons.
The first was to honor the dead who were allowed to rise from the Otherworld. The Celts believed that souls were set free from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain. Those that had been trapped in the bodies of animals were released by the Lord of the Dead and sent onto their new incarnations. The costumes honored those who passed, or lost heroes of the Clan.
Not all of these souls were honored and respected. Some were also feared as they would return to the physical world and destroy crops, hide livestock or ‘haunt’ the living who may have done them wrong.
The second reason for these traditional costumes was to hide the wearer from these malevolent spirits to escape their trickery.
The final representation was a method to honor the Celtic Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields and flocks. Giving thanks and homage to those deities who assisted the village or clan through the trials and tribulations of the previous year. And to ask for their favor during the coming year and the harsh winter months that were approaching.
In addition to celebrations and dance, it was believed that this thin veil between the physical world and the Otherworld provided extra energy for communications between the living and the dead. With these communications, Druid Priests, and Celtic Shamans would attempt to tell the fortunes of individual people through a variety of methods. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
These psychic readings would be conducted with a variety of divination tools. Such as throwing bones, or casting the Celtic Ogham. There is some historical evidence that additional tools of divination were also used. Most of this comes from writings recorded by Roman invaders, but there are stories of reading tea leaves, rocks and twigs, and even simple spiritual communications that today we’d call Channeling. Some historians have suggested that these early people were the first to use tiles made from wood and painted with various images which were the precursor to Tarot Cards. There’s no real evidence to support this, but the ‘story’ of these tiles has lingered for centuries.
When the community celebration was over, each family would take a torch or burning ember from the sacred bonfire and return to their own home. The home fires that has been extinguished during the day were re-lit by the flame of the sacred bonfire to help protect the dwelling and its inhabitants during the coming winter. These fires were kept burning night and day during the next several months. It was believed that if a home lost it’s fire, tragedy and troubles would soon follow.
With the hearth fires lit, the families would place food and drink outside their doors. This was done to appease the roaming spirits who might play tricks on the family. The Romans began to conquer the Celtic territories. By A.D. 43 they had succeeded in claiming the majority of the Celtic lands. They ruled for approximately four hundred years combining or influencing many Celtic traditional celebrations with their own. Two Roman holidays were merged with Samhain.
- Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead.
- Pomona’s Day of Honoring, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
Samhain to Halloween
With the coming of Christianity in the 800s AD, the early Church in England tried to Christianize the old Celtic festivals. Pope Boniface IV designated the 1st of November as “All Saints Day,” honoring saints and martyrs. He also decreed October 31 as “All Hallows Eve”, that eventually became Hallow’een.
Scholars today widely accept that the Pope was attempting to replace the earlier Celtic pagan festival with a church-sanctioned holiday. As this Christian holiday spread, the name evolved as well. Also called All-hallows Eve or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day).
200 years later, in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It is celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints’, All Saints’, and All Souls’ day, are called Hallowmas.
November 1st or May 13th?
Some people confuse Samhain being originally celebrated in May with other pagan and early Christian holidays. It’s not clear where this confusion started, but it persists even today. To discover the true meaning behind the date, you need to look no farther than the name itself.
Samhain comes from the Gaelic word samain. “Sam” – summer and “fuin” – end. It literally means Summer’s End. The early Irish and Brythonic cultures believed the year was divided in half. The dark half and the light half. Samhain marked the end of the light half and the beginning of the Celtic new year or the dark half.
According to Christianized Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia (1979 Vol 12 p 152), The Druids originated the holiday. It was a celebration of Saman Lord of the Dead who was the God of Evil Spirits.
There is a good deal of debate about this origination as the Druids were not the only, or the first spiritual pagans of Ireland. It’s misinformation like this that confuses the history of pagan origins.
Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts come from their trade routes with the Greeks. Their culture can be followed with great precision from the 5th Century BC through the La Tène culture. From these early records with the Greeks we know of some of their great festivals and in particular one of their biggest Samhain the new years festival. Certainly we can gain information from Julius Caesar who wrote extensively about the Gauls during his invasion campaigns in Ireland during 4th Century BC. Eventually Rome is sacked by the Celts in 3rd Century BC, around 390BC. The Romans in general wrote of their warlike inhabitants and many of their barbaric celebrations. Which included Samhain.
In most if not all of these accounts, Samhain is immersed in blood and sacrifice. Often in the earliest of times, those sacrifices were human. One Greek account states these early Celts sacrificed prisoners captured during a battle during their New Years festival of Samhain. In The History and Origins of Druidism by Lewis Spencer writes about the Druids stating they burned their victims in holy fire which had to be consecrated by a Druid priest.
The confusion of May to November 1st probably comes from the Christians and pagan Roman festivals. The Roman Empire was a pagan culture. During their reign they held many pagan festivals and celebrations, one being the Feast of the Lemures on May 13th. During this time malevolent and restless spirits of the dead were appeased and festival participants would attempt to gain the favor of the spirits. The feast covered a three day period that honored “all the dead” with food, drink and sacrifice.
At the same time Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs. This was celebrated in the west from May 13, 609 to 610. Pope Gregory III (731–741) during an oratory in St. Peter’s for the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world”, moved All Saints Day to November 1.
This is further confused by the early Irish churches who did not celebrate All Hallows Day in November or May, but rather in early spring on April 20th during the Felire of Oengus and the Martyrology of Talaght. A festival of All Saints was already widely celebrated in the days of Charlemagne in November. But it took a decree at the insistence of Pope Gregory IV to all the bishops, that the celebration be confirmed on November 1st.
These early similar celebrations come together around 835AD. The Roman pagan festival is over taken by the early Church, the Irish Church conforms its celebrations with Rome, and everyone seems to move their day of the dead to coincide with early Irish pagans and their celebration of Samhain on November 1st.
There’s no doubt, however, that the Irish festival of Samhain has always been at the end of summer on November 1st, and has been one of the prominent harvest festivals for Celtic pagans from the past and the present.
The Evolution Of Halloween
“Trick-or-treating” is a modern tradition that probably finds its roots in the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money.
“Dressing up” for Halloween gets it roots from dressing up around the sacred bonfire during the original Celtic festival. Some suggest, this practice originates from England, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world on Halloween. People thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes, so to avoid being recognized people would wear masks after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. In addition, these early English people, would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter or cause harm to their homes. A tradition obviously taken from the ancient Celtic pagans.
As European came to America, they brought their varied Halloween traditions with them. Celebration of Halloween in colonial times was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. Primarily because Celtic immigrants settled more in these regions than in the north.
As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups meshed together a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, America entered an age of mysticism. What was more often termed spiritualism. Metaphysical groups and clubs began to spring up throughout the Golden Age and the wealthier set of Americans. At the same time, America was welcoming a new group of immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846. This new cultural influence brought with it a melding of Irish and English traditions, and a new Americans culture was born. People began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors.
In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers, than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague Halloween celebrations in many communities during this time. By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated.
Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow.
By the 1990s, Americans have made Halloween one of the largest commercial holidays. Spending an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween costumes, accessories, decorations and pumpkins.
To pagans the world over, November 1st, still marks the beginning of the New Year. To Witches and Pagans, Samhain is the Festival of the Dead, and for many, it is the most important Sabbat (Holiday) of the year. Although the Feast of the Dead forms a major part of most Pagan celebrations on this eve, and at Samhain voluntary communications are expected and hoped for. The departed are never harassed, and their presence is never commanded. The spirits of the dead are, however, ritually invited to attend the Sabbat and to be present within the Circle.
Orange and Black:
The colors of this Sabbat are black and orange. Black to represent the time of darkness after the death of the God (who is represented by fire and the sun) during an earlier sabbat known as Lughnasadh, and the waning of light during the day. Orange represents the awaiting of the dawn during Yule (Dec. 21st to Jan. 1st) when the God is reborn.
There is some debate about the origination of Jack-o-lanterns. One line suggests this custom originated from the lighting of candles for the dead to follow as they walked the earth. These candles were placed in hallowed out gourds and put on the ground to light the way.
Others suggest the practice originates from a Christianized Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.”
Stingy Jack and the Devil enter a pub to have a drink. Jack convinces the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. But instead of using the coin, Jack slipped it into his pocket and next to a silver cross. The cross prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. But Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year. And if Jack should die during that year, the Devil would not claim his soul. And the Devil agreed to these terms.
Jack again tricked the Devil. This time, the Devil climbed into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down. Once again, Jacked struck a bargain with the Devil. He would free the Devil from the tree if he promised not to bother Jack for ten more years. And if Jack died during those years, the Devil would not claim his soul. And the Devil again agreed to these terms.
Not long after this, Jack did indeed died. But because of his trickery, God would not allow him into heaven. In keeping his word not to take his soul, the Devil also would not allow Jack into hell. Instead, the Devil sent Jack out into the darkness of the world between worlds with nothing but a burning piece of coal. Jack placed the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth ever since. The Irish began to refer to Jack’s ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply as “Jack O’Lantern.”
The Irish and Scottish people began making lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away the wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets were used. Immigrants from these countries brought the tradition to America where they found the pumpkin, a fruit native to America, that made the perfect jack o’lanterns.
Tricks & Treats:
Treats also originated from an old custom of leaving cookies and other foods out for those relatives to enjoy as they shared this one night of feasting. The ‘trick’ portion of “Trick or Treat” was an invention of the Christians. The tricks were supposedly caused by the dead who didn’t receive a treat of food left for them when they arrived at your door.
If you consider that the early pagans were shamanistic and in-tune with nature, it’s not hard to see them wearing animal heads and hides and dancing in celebration around a bonfire. This is exactly what they did to honor the hunt along with the harvest. Remember they are preparing for the winter months and giving thanks for stocking their cold rooms or cellars.
The Christians turned this into wearing costumes and masks to hide their presence from the evil spirits that walked the night during this evening when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. Their costumes would be ghoulish so they would “fit in” among the demons.
With the advent of marketing and corporations taking advantage of the secular aspect of Halloween, we now have little pink princesses and spider-man running around on Halloween night.
The early pagans priests/priestesses and shamans would speak with the spirits that came to visit and share messages with their living family. These messages could be personal, making sure the deceased relative was ok, an opportunity to say good-bye or receiving a message for the coming year.
This practice didn’t pass through the Christian community and has more or less gone out of practice. But some pagan traditions and groups do still practice this divination messaging. It’s one thing I like to do after the rituals are over and the house has quieted down. I pull a Tarot card and divine a personal message for the coming year.
Book of Shadows / Magikal Grimoire:
Another practice is to review the year that has passed and close it out with a final notation in your spiritual journal during the day on October 31st and before rituals begin. After the rituals are over on November 1st, a new journal is started with plans or goals and spiritual insights to work on or research to bring introspection to your personal spiritual path.
The Controversy of Samhain and Halloween
Sad to say there have been many fundamentalists who are inciting ignorance and bigotry into the celebrations of Halloween. No longer is Halloween a religious festival here in the US. It has become commercialized as an event for kids to have fun, play dress up and be scared by ghouls and ghosts. It has become nothing more than a secular holiday.
Those who have tried to link Halloween to Samhain are also missing the boat. As Halloween, All Hallows Eve are Christian created holidays devised by the early Churches of Europe as a means to convert pagans to Christianity. The celebrations were indeed taken from pagan practices, but their purposes have long since been corrupted and are no longer pagan in nature. Right down to being practiced on October 31st.
Some one asked me if I cared that a nearby town was attempting to change Halloween from October 31st to the last Friday of each October. My response is why should I mind? Halloween originated from a Christian holiday, do with it what you will. Even if it isn’t recognized as a spiritual Christian holiday any longer, Halloween is still a time for dress up and trick or treating with kids and the whole family. The modern celebrations of Halloween do not take away or alter the spiritual significance of Samhain for pagan practitioners. Our Sabbat is still intact and still honored with reverence and in the traditional methods practiced by our ancient pagan ancestors.
Though we don’t make animal sacrifices any longer, there are some who will toss a steak into a bonfire as a symbolic gesture. The main focus of the holiday for pagans is still to honor our loved ones who have passed on and to share in communication with them during this time when the veil between worlds is narrowed.
So enjoy your Halloween adventures with the kids. When you return home and tuck the little monsters into bed, take time to celebrate your spirit and honor the true meaning of Samhain.
You can find more about the High Holy Days: The Pagan Sabbats, to discover why they’re observed at sunset and their timing through the year.
In addition to the sources listed below that were used to write this article, you might also check out the following resources:
- Natural History periodical – October 1983 p43-44
- Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross
- Celtic Mythology by McCane
- The Druids and Their Heritage by Ward Rutherford
- The Black Arts by Richard Cavendish
- Human Sacrifice by Lewis Spencer
- The History and Origins of Druidism by Lewis Spencer
- Fantasy & Folklore of Hallows Eve – Library Of Congress