As the sun sets on October 31, children of all sizes will don their various costumes for a night of door-bell ringing and devouring sweets. Elsewhere, though, a different ritual will take place, one that heralds the dawn of a new year and welcomes home the dead for an evening.
This holiday, named Samhain (pronounced sow-win, sah-win, or sow-ween), means "summer's end," and it marks the conclusion of the Celtic calendar year. The Celtic people go back at least 2,000 years and lived in what is modern-day Ireland, the UK, and northern France. Because the Celts followed a lunar calendar, Samhain actually began at night on October 31st and continued into November 1st. The day marked the start of the dark times, which is when the leaves have fallen from the trees, the harvest is complete, and the livestock have been brought in from the fields. (It should be noted that Samhain is celebrated during late April and early May in the southern hemisphere.)
For the early Celts, Samhain was celebrated with a major festival involving a communal bonfire. People would sacrifice a portion of their crops and animals to the bonfire as an offering to the Celtic gods. This was also viewed as a means to cleanse the community from the prior year so they may start anew.
Samhain was not all fun and bonfires, however. People believed that on Samhain the veil between the spirit and physical worlds was at its thinnest, allowing ghosts, spirits, and faeries to "mingle" with the living. Sometimes these ghostly visits were benign, and sometimes they were not, especially if a ghost wanted to exact revenge on a living enemy. People wore disguises and lit fires, such as jack-o-lanterns, outside their homes to keep danger at bay.
Samhain was also a time of divination and prophesy-making due to the opening of the portal between the dead and the living. Priests, spiritual leaders, and even regular people would often use this night to make predictions about marriage, offspring, and the next year's harvest.
Some of you may be wondering whether Samhain is the precursor to Halloween. Well, the general belief is that Halloween's roots - the dressing up, the ghoulish themes, the jack-o-lanterns and bobbing for apples - come from Samhain. Confusing things a little, the term "Halloween" most likely came from "All Hallows Eve" which is closely related to the old English term for "All Saints Day." The Roman Catholic church's adoption of "All Saints Day" on November 1 is thought to have been an attempt by Rome to put a Christian label on what was then a major pagan celebration. So while Halloween traditions are similar to Samhain, the name itself has religious roots.
How might you celebrate Samhain today?
Pagans, Druids, and Wiccans all celebrate Samhain as the beginning of a new year. As we've discussed, taking part in certain modern-day Halloween festivities is enjoying in some of what Samhain represented. However, there's a solemnity to Samhain owing to its emphasis on our dead ancestors, and many pagans view the day in this light.
To honor the dead on this day, you have a number of options. Indeed, it's really whatever feels right to you. Here are a few common suggestions:
1. Dine with the Dead (traditionally known as a Dumb Supper): Set a place for your ancestors at the dinner table. Each person at the table puts a bit of their food on this plate and then the group dines in silence (although this part is optional today). When the meal is finished, the ancestor's plate is put outside as an offering to the natural world.
2. Light a candle in a door or window that faces west. This lights the way home for your dead relatives.
3. Cook food that reflects your ancestral lineage. For instance, I may make my Italian family's signature spaghetti sauce.
4. Visit the graves of your family.
5. Assemble an altar with your relative's pictures and artifacts. Light a candle to burn through the night.
6. Hold a seance to converse with your dead loved ones. (note: as a rule, you should wait until at least a year has passed since the person has died.)
7. Get a Tarot reading. Honor Samhain's tradition of fortune-telling by consulting the cards. I know Hidden Moon Tarot would be happy to oblige...
For me, the truly wonderful thing about this night is that it's an opportunity to perform rituals and participate in activities that have been around for thousands of years. It's as if we get the opportunity to stretch our hand across time and space, touching a part of human history.
So, consider experiencing October 31 in the light of Samhain. You may be surprised just how special the evening feels.