My family roots begin in Ireland and were later relocated to Tennessee and amongst the Ozark mountains of Missouri. My personal experience with Traditional witchcraft began in 1960. As such I was raised to honor the four main sabbats, though we did observe the solstices and the equinoxes as minor events if you will.
To our family, Samhain (Oiche Shamhna) is the most important Sabbat of the year. Pronounced as "Sow-in by the Irish, as SAV-en by the Scottish and as SOW-een by the Welsh. It is exactly opposite Beltain on the Wheel of the year. It is reckoned when the sun has reached 15 degrees Scorpio. Thus, Samhain lies exactly between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. And as such, it is known as a Cross Quarter day.
Samhain is also known as "Samhraidhreadh" which means "summers end". This indicates that Samhain is the start of the Celtic "New Year". The Celts were known to have divided the year into two seasons, consisting of summer and winter. The belief is that summer is governed by the Big Sun (the sun) and the winter is governed by what is known as the Little Sun (the moon) .
Samhain is one of the four Fire Festivals and is also known as "Trinoux Samonia." Originally this Sabbat was celebrated for three days, the day before, the day of and the day after. In modern times Samhain has become basically a one day celebration. Neo Pagans tend to lose sight of the historical and spiritual significance of such an important day by combining their Christian beliefs with their new found pagan beliefs and thus they often intermingle Halloween with Samhain. This corruption is explained away by parroting “it’s for the children”, though this special day is hardly one for children. I do not understand how Neo pagans can claim to understand the significance and energy of such a special time and yet allow their children to make a parody of such a spiritual experience, but then it is what it is.
Traditionally, Samhain is the day when the God symbolically dies and the Goddess is in mourning, though she knows that He will be reborn at Yule.
It is also the Third and Final Harvest, and as such, it is a time for preparing for the coming year. It is also known as the day of the Feast of the Roman Goddess "Pamona".
Another interesting note is that Samhain is the day that the Tuatha De Danann, realized their permanent victory over the Fomorians.
Since this is the time that the veil between Annwn (the Underworld) and our realm of existence, is at its thinnest, it is a time to honor and connect with our ancestors. To some Wiccan beliefs, this means direct descendants who have passed over. To those of us in the Celtic/Faery tradition, this would be the ancestral spirits and deity that resides within the earth.
One way to honor this day is "Fleadh nan Mairbh" (Feast of the Dead) . To do so, set an extra plate or two at the dinner table for visiting spirits. Another way is "Bannock Samhain" which entails setting out cakes and milk outside the door as an offering for passing spirits. This is also the time for the "Dumb Supper", a meal served in silence in honor of those who have passed to the Summerland’s.
Remember, this is not a time of mourning, but rather of rejoicing and connecting with those that have gone before us. We do not conjure up these visitors in the manner that a medium would do. But rather we invite them to share the day/night with us.
This is also an excellent time for divination. Roasting nuts in the fire and bobbing for apples are a couple of examples of divination from olden times. Another traditional way is to set a shirt on a thorn bush near a stream and see what spirit comes along to fit it on. At which time you would make enquiries. This form of divination is called the shaking bush. As a spirit fills the shirt, it causes the bush to shake.
Some of the Celtic Deity that you may appeal to for assistance during divination are; Ogma, Rosmerta, Baile, Beli, Coventina, Badh, and Gwyn Ap Nuad, just to name a few.
The concept of the carved pumpkin came about from the belief, that carving a scary face on the pumpkin and using it as a lantern as one walked at night, would scare away evil spirits. Originally they were carved out of turnips.
There is an Irish legend about an Irish lad named Jack. He tricked the devil into climbing a tree and then quickly carved a cross into the tree so that the devil could not get down. He then made a deal with the devil so that he would not go to hell upon passing. But when Jack did pass, not only was he barred from hell, but he was barred from heaven as well because of the doings of his life on earth. Hence he was doomed to walk the earth carrying a lantern to light his way. Thus the Jack-O-Lantern was created.
Another custom related to Samhain is to light a hearth fire on this day and to keep it lit until the first day of spring as a way of honoring one’s spiritual ancestors and deity. Originally, all hearth fires were extinguished on this day and then relit from the Druidic fire which was lit at "Tlachhtga". This particular fire represented the center of Ireland.
Another custom is to leave a candle in the window as a beacon for spirits to find their way home.
Samhain is a time for reflecting on the year just past and preparing for the coming year. One way to do this is to write the weaknesses and negative actions of the past year down on a piece of parchment. After a period of reflection/meditation, burn the parchment in the cauldron or hearth fire. In this way you are starting out fresh for the upcoming New Year.
Some of the foods associated with Samhain are; pork, corn, apples, pomegranates, pumpkin pie, and cider.
The colors associated with this day are; red, orange, yellow, brown and black.
For incense, you can try basil, lilac, clove, yarrow or frankincense.
Some plants or herbs are apple trees, sage, mugwort (divination) , and gourds.
Some crystals are onyx, carnelian, and obsidian.
It is my personal hope that Neo will once again enjoy this unique time as it was meant to be celebrated and revered. There are so many experiences and such an ethereal energy connected with Samhain, if only one allows themselves to open up to such a special experience. Halloween (All Saints day) is but a corruption of what used to be. Samhain is a revered occasion and time to connect with those who have gone before us. And with those others who walk a distinctly separate plane from this realm. May you have the inner strength and un-fettered desire to experience this event as it was meant to be…