Samhain is a pagan religious festival originating from ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. In modern times, Samhain, a Gaelic word pronounced “sow-win”, is usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in the dark half of the year. The barriers between the physical world and the spirit world (the veil) break down during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and denizens of the Otherworld.
Ancient Celts marked Samhain as the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals. After the harvest work was complete, celebrants joined with Druid priests to light a community fire using a wheel that would cause friction and spark flames. The wheel was considered a representation of the sun and used along with prayers. Cattle were sacrificed, and participants took a flame from the communal bonfire back to their home to relight the hearth.
Christianity attempted to reframe Samhain as a Christian celebration The first attempt was by Pope Boniface in the 5th century. He moved the celebration to May 13 and specified it as a day celebrating saints and martyrs. The fire festivals of October and November, however, did not end with this decree. In the 9th century, Pope Gregory moved the celebration back to the time of the fire festivals, but declared it All Saints’ Day, on November 1. All Souls’ Day would follow on November 2.
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. Trick-or-treating derives 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 and singing songs to the dead. Cakes were given as payment.
A broad revival of Samhain resembling its traditional pagan form began in the 1980’s. Wicca celebration of Samhain run the gamut 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.
Celtic Deconstructionists Today
Samhain is often called Oiche Shamnhna and celebrates the mating between Tuatha de Danaan gods Dagda and River Unis. They 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.
- “The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween,” By Jean Markale
- “Samhain: Rituals, Recipes and Lore for Halloween,” By Diana Rajchel.