It's that time of year again! Samhain is quickly approaching, and while it doesn't feel like it in my house (because let's be honest, we haven't finished unpacking because we are still renovating), outside sure does. The leaves are beginning to fall, the air is crisp, and the sun takes just a little bit longer to rise each day. The Earth is beginning to go dormant until spring. Samhain (Sow-in, Sah-vin or Sahm-Hayn), often called Halloween, begins on sundown of October 31st. It is the last of the harvest festivals and a time when the veil between worlds thins and the dead walk the Earth.
Contrary to popular belief, Samhain was not the name of the Celtic god of Death. That would be Donn. Samhain derives from the Gaelic word Samhuin or samhraidhreadh which either means the beginning or end of summer. Scholars are divided, but what we do know is that Samhain was never a god of death. Furthermore, this is not a time to worship the devil or the like. This is a Christian construction, one used in an attempt to scare people into Christianity. When the Church failed to change the holiday to Michaelmas, a day to celebrate St. Michael, it began twisting the holiday into something it is not. They made false claims that those celebrating the holiday were worshiping the devil, making pacts with demons, and selling souls while the innocent were prayed upon by evil spirits wandering the night. In some rural areas of Ireland and Britain it is still viewed as unwise to leave the home on the night of Samhain.
Now that we have gotten that cleared up, let's talk about the history and lore. Samhain is the eve of the pagan New Year, the time of year to reflect over the past year and plan for the new one. This is a sabbat of death and rebirth so many people choose to focus their rituals on banishing the old and bringing in the new. In many European traditions, this is the night the God dies and the Crone Goddess mourns him deeply for the next six weeks (up until Yule). We still often see the Crone represented in Halloween decor as the old hag stirring a cauldron or riding a broom. Today most people fear her, but historically this was not the case. The Crone was respected and honored for her wisdom.
Also included in the theme of death and rebirth is the tradition of honoring our ancestors. Altars are often set up with photographs, candles, and offerings to honor our friends and family who have passed through the veil. The Day of the Dead is a more modern celebration of this ancient holiday. An empty table setting is often placed at the table during dinner for departed family as an invitation and honor. Offerings of food are also often placed on the ancestral altar or on the doorstep for wandering spirits.
While the holiday itself is not evil, that does not mean that evil does not exist in the world. To protect themselves, our ancestors would place vegetables carved with scary faces carved into them outside the home and light candles to ward off any harmful spirits. This tradition grew into the jack o'lanterns that furnish most homes this time of year. Candles are often placed in windows as well for protection. Once large bonefires, called balefires, were lighted across Britian and Ireland as soon as the sun set on October 30th. The word balefire comes from the word "boon" which means "extra." These fires were lit for extra protection, containing the energy of the dead god, and lighting up the night. The tradition of wearing masks on the night of Samhain was also an attempt to ward off evil to protect one's self from faeries and harmful spirits if you had to venture out. Today, it is customary for children (and adults) to dress up for parties, festivals, and Trick-or-Treating.
Of course I have only touched on some of the history and lore of Samhain. This holiday is packed with history, lore, traditions, and tales, so much so I can't put it all in one post. Keep an eye out for posts containing more detailed information.
To learn more, please read the Samhain Correspondences post.