Samhain Is Celebrated Starting October 31

Two jack-o-lanterns are next to each other. Each has a carved face that is glowing from a light or candle that is inside it. By David Mendrey on Unsplash

Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “sow-win”) is a pagan religious festival originating from an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. It us usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in “the dark half of the year.” according to Celebrants believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down 

during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and denizens of the Otherworld.

Ancient Samhain

Ancient Celts marked Samhain as the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at the midpoint between fall equinox and the winter solstice. During this time of the year, hearth fires in family homes were left to burn out while the harvest was gathered.

After the harvest work was complete, celebrants joined with Druid priests to light a community fire using a wheel that would cause friction and spark flames. The wheel was considered a representation of the sun and used along with prayers. Cattle were sacrificed, and participants took a flame from the communal bonfire back to their home to relight the hearth.

Early texts present Samhain as a mandatory celebration lasting three days and three nights where a community was required to show themselves to local kings or chieftains. Failure to participate was believed to result in punishment from the gods, usually illness or death.

Samhain Monsters

Because the Celts believed that the barrier between worlds was breathable during Samhain, they prepared offerings that were left outside villages and fields for fairies, or Sidhs.

It was expected that ancestors might cross over during this time as well, and Celts would dress as animals and monsters so that varies were not tempted to kidnap them. 

Some specific monsters were associated with the mythology surrounding Samhain, including a shape-shifting creature called a Pukah that receives harvest offerings from the field. The Lady Gwyn is a headless woman dressed in white who chases night wanderers and was accompanied by a black pig.

Samhain in the Middle Ages 

As the Middle Ages Progressed, so did the celebrations of the fire festivals. Bonfires known as Samghnagans, which were more personal Samhain fires nearer the farms, became a tradition, purportedly to protect families from fairies and witches.

Carved turnips called Jack-o-lanterns began to appear, attached by strings to sticks and embedded with coal. Later Irish traditions switched to pumpkins.

Wicca and Samhain

A broad revival of Samhain resembling its traditional pagan form began in the 1980s with the growing popularity of Wicca.

Wicca celebration of Samhain takes on many forms, the traditional fire ceremonies to celebrate that embrace many aspects of modern Halloween, as well as activities related to honoring nature or ancestors.

Wiccans look at Samhain as the passing of the year, and incorporate common Wiccan traditions into the celebration.

In the Druid tradition, Samhain celebrates the dead with a festival on October 31 and usually features a bonfire and communion with the dead. American pagans often hold music and dance celebrations called Witches’ Balls in proximity to Samhain.

World History wrote: When Christianity reached Ireland in the 5th century CE, the Catholic Church found it easier to convert the Celts by incorporating certain pagan celebrations into the Catholic calendar. Attempting to subsume Samhain under a contextually similar Christian holiday, All Saints Day was created and initially assigned to May. 13.

Probably in part due to the Celtic reluctance to abandon Samhain, All Saint’s Day was eventually moved to November 1. November 2 then became All Souls Day, which some see as an attempt to absorb the elements of Samhain that All Saints Day may have failed to capture. 

All Saints Day became a widespread Catholic holiday by the 14th century CE, and by the 15th century CE we begin to see writings describing celebrations that more closely resemble Halloween as we see it today.

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