Samhain and Samhain-based festivals are held by some Neopagans. As there are many kinds of Neopaganism, their Samhain celebrations can be very different despite the shared name. Some try to emulate the historic festival as much as possible. Other Neopagans base their celebrations on sundry unrelated sources, Gaelic culture being only one of the sources. Folklorist Jenny Butler describes how Irish pagans pick some elements of historic Samhain celebrations and meld them with references to the Celtic past, making a new festival of Samhain that is inimitably part of neo-pagan culture.
Neopagans usually celebrate Samhain on 31 October – 1 November in the Northern Hemisphere and 30 April – 1 May in the Southern Hemisphere, beginning and ending at sundown. Some Neopagans celebrate it at the astronomical midpoint between the autumn equinox and winter solstice (or the full moon nearest this point). In the Northern Hemisphere, this midpoint is when the ecliptic longitude of the Sun reaches 225 degrees. In 2015, this is on 7 November, at 17:44 GMT.
Like other Reconstructionist traditions, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans emphasize historical accuracy. They base their celebrations and rituals on traditional lore as well as research into the beliefs of the polytheistic Celts.
Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans (or CRs) often celebrate Samhain on the date of first frost, or when the last of the harvest is in and the ground is dry enough to have a bonfire. Some follow the old tradition of building two bonfires, which celebrants and livestock then walk or dance between as a ritual of purification. For CRs, it is a time when the dead are especially honoured. Though CRs make offerings at all times of the year, Samhain is a time when more elaborate offerings are made to specific ancestors. This may involve making a small shrine. Often there will be a meal, where a place for the dead is set at the table and they are invited to join. Traditional tales may be told and traditional songs, poems and dances performed. A western-facing door or window may be opened and a candle left burning on the windowsill to guide the dead home. Divination for the coming year is often done, whether in all solemnity or as games for the children. The more mystically inclined may also see this as a time for deeply communing with their deities, especially those seen as being particularly linked with this festival.
Wiccans celebrate a variation of Samhain as one of the yearly Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year. It is deemed by most Wiccans to be the most important of the four “greater Sabbats”. Samhain is seen by some Wiccans as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have died, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the dead are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the spring festival of Beltane, which Wiccans celebrate as a festival of light and fertility.
Wiccans believe that at Samhain the veil between this world and the afterlife is at its thinnest point of the whole year, making it easier to communicate with those who have left this world.
Samhain and the Connection to Halloween
Halloween is said to be largely influenced by Samhain, a Gaelic festival that marks the end of the harvest season and the start of the darker half of the year (winter). Samhain has a long history, having been mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature; the celebration is known to actually have pre-Christian roots. It is celebrated on the 31st of October beginning at sunset and ending at sunset on the 1st of November. Samhain was one of four Gaelic festivals that marked the seasons and was mainly observed in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. The Samhain festival consisted of the slaughtering of animals for winter, rituals involving bonfires that were said to have cleansing and protective powers, and more. During Samhain, it was believed that fairies or spirits could more easily enter our world. Many of these spirits were thought to be remnants of nature spirits and pagan gods. Food and drink were offered to the spirits during Samhain and it was thought that the souls of the dead revisited their homes during this time. In current times, many Wiccans and Celtic neopagans observe Samhain as a religious holiday.
Samhain dates back to Gaelic Ireland and is attested in some of the earliest Irish literature from the 10th century. It was one of four seasonal festivals, the others being Beltane, Imbolc, and Lughnasadh, and was thought to have been one of the most important festivals of the year. Contrary to popular belief, Samhain is not a celebration of the Celtic god of the dead, and instead celebrates the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.
At the start of the celebration at sunset on October 31st, Samhain ceremonies and festivities would begin. People would gather and start bonfires and animals and crops were burned as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. It was a way of giving the Celtic Gods and Goddesses their share of the crops and herds from the previous year. In addition to being used for sacrifice, these fires were considered sacred and served to cleanse the old year and prepare for the New Year.
During the Samhain celebrations, the Celts would normally wear costumes while dancing around their bonfires. The dances had deep meaning and told the stories of life and death. Some of the dances also commemorated the cycle of the Wheel of Life. Along with preparing for a new year, Samhain was considered a time in which spirits could freely enter the world. Many of these souls, or spirits were respected and honored however some were also feared. Some were feared because it was believed that they could hide livestock, destroy crops and haunt the living who they thought had done them wrong. The costumes that were worn by the Celts during Samhain festivities were believed to allow the living to hide from the feared spirits.
While Halloween does have roots in Samhain, they are not the same thing. Samhain is still celebrated today by various groups including Wiccans and there are many ways in which the festival is celebrated. There are not only group rituals, but single rituals as well. Anyone interested in celebrating Samhain with traditional rituals can learn more by doing a simple search online. Halloween, while celebrated on the same night as Samhain, differs from the original festival in many ways but also shares lots of similarities. With the rise of Christianity, Halloween was actually thought by many to have been created in an attempt to replace Samhain. Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, is celebrated in much the same way as Samhain with costumes, celebrations, and more. The two holidays, while definitely intertwined when it comes to their history, do differ from one another as Samhain has roots in paganism while Halloween has roots in Christianity.
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), dates back to the ancient Celts who lived 2,000 years ago. Contrary to what some believe, is not a celebration of a Celtic god of the Dead. Instead, it is a Celtic word meaning “summer’s end.” The Celts believed that summer came to an end on October 31st and the New Year began on November 1st with the start of winter. But the Celts also followed a lunar calendar and their celebrations began at sunset the night before.
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 their 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 fresh and clean household items.
At sunset on October 31, clans or local villages begin the formal ceremonies of Samhain by lighting a giant bonfire. The people 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. 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. These costumes were adorned 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 to their new incarnations. The wearing of these costumes signified the release of these souls into the physical world.
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 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 attempted 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 its 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.