For as long as I can remember, I have believed Samhain (Oiche Shamhna) to be the most sacred period of the year. As a follower of the old ways, I observe Samhain as the end of the Third and Final harvest.
As a “Cross quarter” day, it lies exactly between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. And thus holds even additional meaning.
Samhain is known as "Samhraidhreadh" which translates as "summers end" and is thus the start of the Celtic "New Year". In Celtic beliefs the year is divided into two seasons which are seen as Summer and Winter.
In addition the summer half of the year is governed by the Big Sun (the sun) and the winter half is governed by the Little Sun (the moon).
Samhain is one of the four Fire Festivals celebrated by the Celts and is known as "Trinoux Samonia." This description depicts the three days of celebration in regards to Samhain which consist of the day before Samhain, the day of and the day after Samhain.
Samhain is that time when the veil between realms grows very thing. This allows passage of various entities from other-world realms to enter our world with little or no problem.
I see it as a time to honor and connect with our ancestors for they are some of the entities passing through the veil.
Other entities that pass through were thought to be evil spirits traveling from Annwn (the Underworld) to our realm.
The ancient Celts would contend with these evil spirits by way of their Druids who would strive to keep them at bay. A bonfire was often employed on Samhain because of its connection to the Sun. The term bonfire comes from the words "bone fire," (tine cnámh) because the bones of sacrificed animals, and in ancient times, the bones of humans, were set ablaze.
During the festivals or gatherings around the bon fires, the Celts would wear masks and costumes in an effort to placate the evil spirits passing through.
Another custom associated with the bon fire is that on Samhain all bon fires and hearth fires were extinguished. A fire then would be lit on The Hill of Tlachtga, named for the daughter of the Arch Druid; Mug Ruith. This fire was then carried to the Hill of Tara from which all other fires in Ireland were lit.
Often the Celts would build two bonfires side by side, and then folks would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes the cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires, as well in order to protect them from mischievous spirits.
During Samhain, children would go from door to door begging for a treat which in essence was a bribe to keep any pranks from happening to the homeowner. To a lesser degree this tradition is still followed to this day, though it is now called Halloween by Christians, Neo Pagans and others. It is well known that the Celts would the day before Samhain, engage in pranks and offbeat behavior. In today’s times this is generally called “Hell night”.
There are a number of special events in Celtic history that are associated with Samhain.
For instance, this was the day that the Tuatha De Danann defeated the Fomorians for the final time at the “Cath Maige Tuireadh” (Battle of Mag Tuired).
It is also the day of the Feast of the Roman Goddess "Pamona". Some believe that the introduction of the apple during Samhain celebrations was influenced by the Feast of Pamona since the apple is Her symbol.
It was on Samhain that the Celtic Goddess, the Morrigan and the Celtic God, the Dagda met and had sex prior to the battle with the Fomorians.
And it was on Samhain that the Nemedians were required to pay their taxes to the Fomorian overlords.
The connections with Samhain don’t stop there.
Samhain is also an excellent time to do divination with so many spirit helpers about. Some of the traditions connected to this practice are Apple bobbing and roasting chestnuts from which readings would be taken. Another Celtic tradition is to set a shirt on a thorn bush near a stream and when a spirit comes along to fit it on, one would then begin to make their enquiries of the visitor.
Other traditions include "Fleadh nan Mairbh" (Feast of the Dead). Folks would set an extra plate or two at the dinner table for visiting spirits.
And yet another way is "Bannock Samhain" where cakes and milk were set outside the door as an offering.
This is also the time for the "Dumb Supper", a meal served in silence in honor of ones family members and friends who have passed through the veil.
Early Celts would often leave candles lit n the windows during Samhain to help guide the spirits along in their travels.
When the early Celts traveled abroad during Samhain, they often carried a lamp with a scary face carved into it, made out of a turnip gourd. This lamp was thought to scare away the evil spirits that abounded during this special time.
When the Irish folks migrated to the US during the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, they brought many of these customs with them. With the turnip lantern giving way to the ever popular pumpkin one sees in use today. The Jack - O - Lantern came about as a Christian tale in connection with Samhain.
Speaking of the Christian influence, many of you already know that the Christians had a practice of superimposing their holidays over pagan holidays in order to obliterate our beliefs. But did you know that it was Pope Boniface IV who designated November 1 as All Saints' Day, superimposing this observance over the Celtic Feast of the Dead known as Samhain?
The same Pope was responsible for the first transformation of a pagan temple into a place of Christian worship. That was the temple erected by Agrippa in honor of Jupiter, Venus and Mars. The temple was re-consecrated to the Christian’s, Virgin Mary by Pope Boniface IV.
Did you also know that All Saints' Day was originally observed on May 13 before it was moved to November 1 by the Christians?
This is interesting in that May 13 was also a pagan holiday known as the Feast of the Lemures. This was a feast during which the ancient Romans performed rites to exorcise the evil spirits from their homes.
The term Halloween derives from All-hallow-even, which is the eve of "All Hallows' Day" (hallow means saint), which is also known as All Saints' Day.
At any rate, Samhain has a long and rich history of being a very special time. Whether you are aware of its history or not, it is very difficult to ignore the power and influence that Samhain or its altered description, Halloween, has over folks. One can ignore the implications of Samhain, but this does not stop the spirits, both benevolent and evil, from traveling back and forth during this particular time of the year.
As a Celtic witch I am eager to embrace such a special occasion. I see it as a time for learning and deep reflection on ones spiritual goals.