from various sources
Samhain – Halloween – Oct. 31st or 1st Full Moon of Scorpio or when the Sun is 15 degrees in Scorpio in the Northern Hemisphere or May 1st or the 1st Full Moon of Taurus or when the Sun is 15 degrees in Taurus in the Southern Hemisphere. This is the Celtic New Year Day; the “Time of the Thin Veil” when the veil between the Worlds of the living and the dead is the thinnest. It’s the night for celebrations to honor those that have passed over, and many feels this is the ideal time to commune or speak with those who have passed over to the land of the dead. The harvest is finished. The dying God is interred and the Goddess has descended to the underworld to be with her beloved. This is the time of the Crone aspect of the Goddess and is the last of the Three Harvest Sabbats.
The word Samhain is a Gaelic word that means “Summer’s End”. Some of you will say that summer ended a month ago but what you need to understand is that the Celtics had only two seasons, Summer and Winter. In Ireland, it’s pronounced “SOW-win” and in Scotland it’s pronounced “Sav-en”. The Welsh calls this day Calan Gaeaf or Nos Calan Gaeaf. The Manx calls it Oie Houney or Hop-tu-naa. The Welsh, Scottish and Irish customs were about providing protection through the Winter months. For most to the Celtic Pagans Samhain is their New Year or New Year’s Eve with November 1st being the first day of the New Year. Samhain marks the end of the harvest and is the time to prepare for the Winter.
It is important to remember that this is a time of not only the death of humans, but that to nature it is a time of death too. With the colder months, frost, ice and snow, and the diminishing of the sunlight, both plants and animals begin to die off. There is less food available for the wild creatures and thus some die of starvation. But the hearty and clever of the animals survive to greet the Spring and they are the ones to breed and give birth. Plants also seem to all die off. But those that are hibernating for the Winter or have cast their seeds to the ground begin to sprout and come to life with the coming of the warmer weather and the abundant sunlight of Spring.
To the ancient Celts, Samhain is the most important of the Four Celtic Fire Festivals. Traditionally the ancient Celts would, with the first frost after the Full Moon of October, allow their hearth fires to burn out. This is significant as they tended to never let their hearth fires go out. Then they would gather with the rest of the community and observe as the Druid priests lit a large bonfire on a hilltop with friction and everyone would take a brand of this fire back to their homes to relight their hearth fires and also light either bonfires or torches that they set at the edges of their fields to protect them. It was also believed that the wandering spirits and faeries would cause trouble and damage crops so these fires were protection from them. In some villages, the villagers would leave an offering of food at the edge of the village for the wandering spirits or faerie folk.
Around the Middle-Ages in Wales and the Scottish Highlands, servants and boys from the ages of 8 up into their teens would go to the bonfires that were built at the main street of their villages and light touches and then run them to the fields to plant them. Also, bonfires were built on hilltops close to the farms. This was at first said to ward off the faeries but later was said to ward off witchcraft. In the Victorian times, it became a practice to toss an effigy of an old woman into the fire, calling it “the burning of the witch”. As you can see people became less worried about needing protection from faeries and became more worried about needing protection from witchcraft.
In the Welsh communities, they practice a ritual they called the Tinley. After the bonfires had burned down the villagers would gather around the ashes and place a stone within the ashes forming a circle. In the morning if a person discovered his/her stone disturbed then they were considered claimed by the faeries and it was believed that they would die within the coming year. Also, the ashes of the fires had a practical purpose of helping to keep the invasive plants out of the fields.
The ancient Celts were known to sacrifice a portion of their crops and meat animals by burning them in the great bonfire to the Deities as part of their thanks to Them for their prosperity. They would also dance about the bonfire wearing costumes, mostly of animal heads and skins.
In Scotland and parts of Ireland, Cailleach appears at this time. She is the Dark Mother aspect of the Goddess. In Scotland, She is known as Cailleach Bheur and in Ireland She is known as Cailleach Beare. She is seen as a one-eyed old woman with bad teeth and matted hair. Her name means “veiled one” or “old woman”. In some Scottish lore, She appears to a hero as a hideous old woman, if he treats Her well She turns into a beautiful woman and rewards his good deeds. In other stories, She turns into a cold grey boulder and stays that way till Beltaine when she brings back Spring. She is born at Samhain as an old woman but as the winter progresses, She slowly grows more beautiful till at Beltaine when She is a beautiful young woman.
As for jack-o-lanterns, the Celtics would carry about a carved and hollowed out turnip lantern which had a live coal in it to light their way and to ward off spirits. This jack-o-lantern was named after Old Jack who was so evil that he was denied entry to both heaven and hell and thus roamed the streets on Halloween. When those that observed, this tradition came to the New World they found pumpkins to be more plentiful and useful than the turnips and started using them.
Jack-o-lanterns were also put out on the walkway to a person’s home to not only keep witches away but to also guide ancestors that have passed through the veil to find their way to the home of their loved ones. Candles were also sometimes placed in the windows, usually the west window, also to guide their loved one’s home.
It is traditional on Samhain night to leave a plate of food outside the home for the souls of the dead. Some set a place at the table for the loved ones who have passed over. This is called the “Dumb Supper”. One would sit at the table and consume the meal in either silence or quiet voices, except at the beginning of the meal when the ancestors are invited to the meal and then at the end of the meal when they are bid goodbye. In Ireland, the doors and windows were left unlocked and cakes were set out for the dead. It was sacrilege to eat these cakes. Afterwards the ancestors expected entertainment and so the children played games related to Samhain while the adults discussed the events of the past year. This “Dumb Supper” became quite a big deal in the United States in some parts. In Kentucky, it was reported that the whole meal was prepared in silence and those that prepared it would walk backwards the whole time, and where possible prepare the meal with their hands behind their backs. It is also traditional for some to bury apples in the Earth so as to “feed” those that has passed on while on their journey back through the veil. Some even set up an altar for their loved ones who have passed over to honor them. Many modern Pagans hold the “Dumb Supper” in honor of the ancestors in their homes with not only their families but sometimes with friends as well.
When the Irish Protestants settled in the United States in the nineteenth century, they brought their own brand of Samhain/Halloween traditions with them. They had parties, games and masquerade parades. Their non-Irish neighbors joined in the revelry. The parties and games for children is what became more traditional as time went by. The older children and young adults would join in as part of their courtship practices. The expensive and destructive tradition of Halloween pranks started in the 1930’s. By the 1950’s most cities had some sort of trick-or-treat event in the hopes of curtailing the destruction of the pranks. The commercializing of Halloween really didn’t catch on till the 1970’s when it stopped being a holiday mostly for children and became a secular holiday for everyone including adults. Of course, as it became more popular to the general public it also became more controversial to the conservative Christians. In some areas, the derogatory name of “Beggar’s Night” has cropped up. This is in reference to the children going door to door asking for treats.
For modern Pagans and non-Pagans in the cities and towns, trick-or-treating from door to door is quite common in North America. While in the country where the population is sparse and the closest neighbor is too far for this kind of activity, communities will many times hold Halloween parties in a local school or community building for the children and even sometimes adults. Though Halloween isn’t a national holiday in the United States, it is still widely and enthusiastically celebrated.
With the advent of Christianity Samhain changed appearance more than disappeared over the centuries. By the 1980’s when the Pagan movement and Traditional Witch movement began to flourish in both North American and the United Kingdom, more and more people began to practice more serious and solemn celebrations for Samhain, which they tended to celebrate on October 31st or on the Full Moon closest to it. Many in the United Kingdom never really stopped practicing the old traditions for Samhain, as they are a big part of their community’s tradition.
Most Pagans in North America celebrate both Halloween and Samhain. Samhain is of course more solemn than Halloween. But there is no reason that you can’t observe both, even on the same day for Halloween has its roots in Samhain. Where Samhain is more serious and loving, remembering those that have passed on, Halloween revels in our wildness and need to simply have fun. Both are appropriate for October 31st. However, many Pagans today celebrate Samhain on the Full Moon closest to that date or upon the astrological cross quarter day which most determine by consulting an almanac.
Local covens or larger Pagan organizations will sometimes hold public rituals for Samhain. These usually are held just before or just after October 31st as they wish to accommodate those that have private celebrations scheduled. Though there are those that hold their coven rituals on the Full Moon or New Moon closest to October 31st. Witches’ Balls have also become quite popular. These are of course for adults including food, drinks, dancing, music and of course costumes.
Ritual suggestions for Samhain are : Rituals honoring those that have passed on, whether your personal ancestors or family members or others. Make an ancestor altar or decorating it for the season; rituals that honor the cycle of life, death and rebirth. And of course, you can celebrate the end of a successful harvest. Don’t forget to do a ritual honoring the Goddess and God.
You can also celebrate Samhain with your children. Here are a few suggestions. You can introduce to your children the subject of genealogy. Teaching them about who their ancestors were and why they should honor them. You can help them to make an ancestor altar. You can, of course, include them in the ritual for honoring the ancestors not to mention the Goddess and God. Take the children outdoors to the woods and share with them the wonders of the changing season. Of course, there is always the making of the seasonal decorations for Halloween and getting dressed up and being silly.
A somewhat new custom that is springing up is the adoption of a Living Ancestor. This is where you would take the time to visit nursing homes and elderly living facilities and do some volunteering there. Why remember our elders only when they have passed from our lives? We should also be spending time with them now while they are still with us. They don’t have to be dead to pass on wisdom and knowledge to us.
This is a good time for divination which is heightened on this night. There are many forms of divination available to you; also, meditation and listening for guidance that may come from the ancestors and those that have passed through the veil. It is also a good time to reflect on our lives. Many believe that due to the thinning of the veil at this time that it is easier to get guidance from the ancestors. So, communing with those that have passed on is done quite often at this time of year. The Druid priests would also cast predictions at this time for the coming year. Much of the divination that was done at this time dealt with the weather, the success of the crops that they would plant in the Spring and whether the farm animals would thrive. This was very important to the ancient Celts at that time as they were very much at the mercy of the weather, crop success and their animal’s survivals.
As this is the Pagan New Year, it is a good time to wrap up things that you’ve been handling for the last year so that you can make a fresh start. It is also a great time for magic. Many witches will use this time to do magic that will help them to make the coming Winter months more bearable. Spells to settle old debts and against sorrow are good at this time; and of course, communing with the departed ancestors as well as sending psychological issues to their metaphorical graves are just a sample of the kind of activities that works well this time of year. Remember to continue with any professional treatments you might be having. Rituals honoring the Goddess and God are also done at this time.
Just as many will say that Spring is a good time to spiritually cleanse your home, so is the Samhain season a great time to not only cleanse but also blessing and protecting your home against the harsh Winter months ahead.
Jack-O-Lanterns, gourds and cider can be used in ritual and family celebrations. Black candles are used to ward off baneful energies and entities and mums are an appropriate flower for the altar and home.
Food for the season are : beets, turnips, apples, corn, nuts, gingerbread, cider, mulled wines and pumpkin dishes, as are meat dishes (If you are a vegetarian, tofu seems ritually correct). Colors are : black, orange, indigo and violet.
Many begin decorating on the 1st of October. Now is the time for buying a new broom (house and/or Besom). This is also a good time to buy 3 ears of dried corn and store them for later use.
Incense for Samhain
2 parts Rosemary
1 part Frankincense
1 part Cinnamon
1 part Cloves
1 part Dragon’s Blood
1 part Patchouli
1/2 part Sage
1/4 part Hyssop
pinch of Sea Salt (though table salt will also work)
Use for Samhain rituals or at that time of the season.
Another Incense for Samhain
1 part Myrrh
1 part Cinnamon
1 part Cloves
½ part Mullien
½ part Sage