Samhain – The Irish New Year.
Following the revels of Hallowe’en, the ancient Irish celebrated the festival of the dead – Samhain, which is pronounced sow-en, and is usually translated as “summer’s end.”
In Celtic lore, the year is divided into two halves associated with the dark and the light. The dark half begins at sunset on November 1st with Samhain and the cycle ends when the light half begins at sunset on May 1st, which is the festival of Bealtaine. Both festivals are closely linked, but in general, Samhain is considered to be the most important.
In the old days, extensive preparations were made for the sharing of a communal feast that included the dearly departed as guests of honor. To enable them to come and go freely, all doors and windows were left unlatched; a special cake was made exclusively for their consumption, and a certain amount of other food was set aside just for them. This had to be left untouched by any mortal hand for the duration of the ritual period. Eating the food of the dead was considered to be a major sacrilege and it condemned the perpetrator to becoming a hungry spirit after death, forever banned from sharing in the Samhain feast.
Beyond the great feast, the dead would also need to be entertained. Customs vary from one Celtic nation to another, but in general, while the young people played games associated with the rituals of Samhain, the elders reviewed all of the events of the past year for the benefit of those who had passed on. This was believed to encourage the dead to continue to take an interest in the affairs of the living.
As at all turning points in the Celtic year, ancient lore tells us that the Gods draw near to earth at Samhain. In ancient Ireland, people extinguished their hearth fires and then gathered at the ritual center of their tribe to honor the gods with gifts and sacrifices. There, they waited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year. Then, personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants were cast into the blaze. At the end of the ceremonies, each member of the tribe took back to his or her home hearth a brand ignited from the new fire.
Samhain fires have continued to light up the countryside down the centuries. In some areas, ashes from these bonfires were sprinkled on surrounding fields as a form of protection. The added bonus, of course, was that the ashes improved the soil.
So how did Samhain become All Saints Day? As with many of the old festivals, Christianity stepped in to do whatever it could to eliminate pagan rituals. In this case, it was Pope Boniface who took the festival of the dead and made it the festival of all saints and martyrs. Originally it took place on May 13th, but a century later, Pope Gregory III shifted it to November. In Ireland, All Saints Day was instituted in 998 AD by Abbot Odilo of Cluny and by the 13th century, although many of the old Samhain rituals persisted as folk customs, November 1st had become firmly established as a Christian festival.