Samhain (pronounced sow′-en) means “summer’s end” in the Gaelic languages of Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Wales. To the ancient Celts who settled in these areas, the year consisted of two seasons, the light (summer) and the dark (winter). The Samhain festival marked the transition from summer to winter as well as the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
As the days grew colder and darker, herders led their sheep and cattle from their summer pastures in higher elevations down into the valleys. They killed many of the animals and preserved the meat to provide food for the long winter. Others gathered the last crops of the harvest — barley, oats, wheat, turnips, and apples – before the winter frosts would come and destroy them. They gathered firewood and cut and dried peat to heat their homes, cook their food, and light the dark nights. Families and communities often gathered to celebrate successful harvests with feasts accompanied by storytelling, games, and divination (fortune-telling through natural objects).
The Celts believed that during the time of Samhain the barrier between the natural world and the spirit world was at its thinnest and that it was possible to communicate with the dead. They also believed that supernatural beings such as fairies were more active at this time than at others. People traveled fearfully, hoping to avoid the fairies as they roamed the countryside looking to play tricks on or even abduct the unwary. They sometimes left offerings of milk and barley outside their homes to appease the fairies and keep their families safe from harm.
In common with many other cultures, the Celts acknowledged the change of the seasons in their religious lives. The Druids, the priestly class within Celtic cultures, conducted elaborate ceremonies at Samhain. While little is known of the practices of the Druids since they left no writings of their own to explain their beliefs and rituals, there are accounts in secular historical writings that provide some information about the religious aspects of Samhain. In Ireland, the tribes united under the rule of a High King gathered at Tara, the administrative center of the kingdom, for a great feast every year at Samhain. From Tara the scene shifted to Tlachtga, a sacred hill, where Druids lighted a great bonfire for the new year.
Christianity ultimately supplanted the native religions of the Celts living in the British Isles. The Roman Catholic Church, as it often had done with other pagan festivals, adopted Samhain for its own and put a Christian face on it. During the tenth century, November 1 became All Saints’ Day on the Christian calendar and was designated as a day to celebrate the lives of all the saints and martyrs of the church. Some time later All Souls’ Day was established on November 2 to celebrate the lives of all the faithful departed.
Even though the religion from which Samhain had its origin had faded away, many of the beliefs and rituals of Samhain survived as folk customs among peoples of Celtic ancestry. Pastoral people continued to celebrate the harvest with bonfires, a practice that continues today in some of the more rural areas of Scotland and Ireland. Belief in supernatural beings such as fairies and ghosts persisted in the Christian era in spite of the church’s attempts to eradicate it. As they had with Samhain, people came to associate All Saints’ Day, or All Hallow’s Day as it was known then, with increased supernatural activity. These beings were thought to be particularly active on the night before All Hallow’s Day, All Hallow’s E’en (Evening). A custom developed in which adults dressed up in costumes and went from house to house playing tricks and demanding tributes of food in imitation of the fairies. They frequently carried lanterns made of turnips that they had hollowed out and carved a face into one side. A candle inside the turnips provided light for their journeys as it shined through the carved faces.
Over many years these customs grew into the celebration that we know as Halloween. While Halloween today is primarily a holiday for children devoid of religious or spiritual significance, many of the symbols we commonly associate with it derive from ancient Celtic practices. Ghosts, fairies, witches, apples, and even black cats are all elements that date back to the celebration of Samhain more than one thousand years ago. Another Halloween tradition, trick or treating, known in Scotland as guising, while not nearly so old, nonetheless has its origin in Samhain. Immigrants from the United Kingdom and Ireland carried Halloween to the United States where it has been widely celebrated since the mid-nineteenth century. The United States in turn has contributed its own touch to the observance of Halloween by substituting the round orange pumpkin for the turnip and long-necked squash traditionally used to make jack-o-lanterns.
The ancient Druids have long vanished and the Celtic tribes they served have been transformed into the Scots, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish. Samhain, however, has recently come back to life. Many modern-day pagans, among them Wiccans and Druids, model their beliefs on the ancient Celtic religions and have revived the celebration of Samhain in its original form.
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Freeman, Mara. Samhain. Carmel, Calif.: Chalice Productions, 1999; accessed 25 October 2002; available from http://www.chalicecenter.com/samhain.htm; Internet.
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