Samhain is pronounced as ‘sow-in’ (in Ireland), or ‘sow-een’ (in Wales), or ‘sav-en’ (in Scotland), or (inevitably) ‘sam-hane’ (in the U.S. where we don’t speak Gaelic) meaning Summer’s End. This was the old Irish New Year, and the celtic calender was based on the agricultural and pastoral year. Samhain was the first day of winter, and the end of one pastoral year. Our ancestors celebrated with the great festival of Samain on the eve of November 1actually October 31st (either date is appropriate as the Celts measured the day from sunset to sunset.) . For modern Pagans it is a bit harder to really understand the importance of the seasonal changes to our ancestors, for we are so insulated from the realities of cold and darkness by central heating and electric lights.
It was the time when the night became longer than the day, the last apples were picked, and the year began again with its dark winter half. Also called Samhiunn or Hallowe’en, this festival is sometimes called Trinoux Samonia or “Three Nights of the End of Summer.” It is balanced by Beltane (or Bealtaine, Beltaine) which signals the start of summer, 6 months later.
This is the time when cattle and sheep where brought in from summer pasture, surplus live stock was slaughtered for winter food ( to make fewer mouths to feed.), and sheep were mated to provide for the following years stock.The last fruit was picked, except that which would be left for the Sidhe, and the grain was already gathered and had been processed for fodder, flour, and beer. Fishermen put up their boats and stored their gear. Debts would be paid up. Young people who hired out as farm or herder help would return home, as would the warriors of the not-totally-mythological Fianna and any Bards or poets traveling about would find a household to attach themselves to. The people would begin preparing for the long, dark winter of living almost constantly indoors in often crowded conditions. It is the beginning of the dark time, and a “twilight” period between both the years and the seasons. The name likely means “summer’s end,” although there is some debated about this among the more linguistically inclined; it does indeed mark the transition from summer to winter.
The festival itself would be celebrated with great fires which were lit to ensure the renewel of life in the earth after its long winter sleep , feasts, and animal sacrifices (which would be the killing of the livestock for the feasts and to be cured for later) at large gatherings as well as smaller local ones. In ancient Ireland all of the fires were extinguished and relighted from the one great fire kindled by the King’s chief Druid, on the hill of Tachtga. Members of each family would light torches to carry back and rekindle their own hearth-fires, which were then kept burning the rest of the year. The assemblies of the five Irish provinces at Tara Hill, the seat of the Irish king, took place at Samhain. These gatherings were celebrated with horse races,
fairs, markets, assembly rites, political discussions, and ritual mourning for the passage of summer.
Story telling started at this time and in many chieftains’ halls it was mandatory that a story be told every night during the dark half of the year, from Samhain to Beltaine. After all, except for an occasional hunting expedition and the fixing of weapons and tools, there wasn’t a lot to do at his time; while temperatures in the British Isles are kept relatively mild by the Gulf Stream it is dark most of the day during the winter months. Undoubtedly, not being driven by “Christian work ethic,” the need for capitalistic gain, or artificial lighting people slept a lot through the winter.
ALL HALOWS EVE
Samhain is really the time in between two years and is therefore a time of Chaos, a time when the Otherworld rules. Afterwards a new order would be created for the New Year. It is said to be the time when the veil between worlds is very thin, when souls that are leaving this phisical plane can pass out and souls that are reincarnating can pass in. It was believed to be the time when natural laws were suspended, and ghosts and demons roamed abroad. It is a time when the Sidhe, the Gods and the Ancestors might come visiting and should be offered proper hospitality; food, drink, a place to rest. Many Pagans prepare a Feast for the Dead on Samhain night, where they leave offerings of food and drink for the spirits. Jack-o-lanterns, gourds, cider, fall foliage can be used as altar decorations. In some Celtic traditions, most notably the Scottish Highlands, young men would run the boundaries of their farms after sunset with blazing torches to protect the family from the Faeries and malevolent forces that were free to walk the land at night, causing mischief.
Darkness increases and the Goddess reigns as the Crone, part of the three-in-one that also includes the Maiden and Mother. The God, the Dark Lord, passes into the underworld to become the seed of his own rebirth (which will occur again at Yule).
The custom of dressing in costume and ‘trick-or-treating’ is of Celtic origin with survivals particularly strong in Scotland. However, there are some important differences from the modern version. In the first place, the custom was not relegated to children, but was actively indulged in by adults as well. Also, the ‘treat’ which was required was often one of spirits (the liquid variety). This has recently been revived by college students who go ‘trick-or-drinking’. And in ancient times, the roving bands would sing seasonal carols from house to house, making the tradition very similar to Yuletide wassailing. In fact, the custom known as ‘caroling’, now connected exclusively with mid-winter, was once practiced at all the major holidays. Finally, in Scotland at least, the tradition of dressing in costume consisted almost exclusively of cross-dressing (i.e., men dressing as women, and women as men). It seems as though ancient societies provided an opportunity for people to ‘try on’ the role of the opposite gender for one night of the year.
Samhain was seen as a time when the future could most easily be predicted, and was a favored time among Druids forritual fortune-telling. Divination would be important, for not only was this a major turning point in the year but such things would be easier with the nearness of Otherworldly help. The reason for this has to do with the Celtic view of time. In a culture that uses a linear concept of time, like our modern one, New Year’s Eve is simply a milestone on a very long road that stretches in a straight line from birth to death. Thus, the New Year’s festival is a part of time. The ancient Celtic view of time, however, is cyclical. And in this framework, New Year’s Eve represents a point outside of time, when the natural order of the universe dissolves back into primordial chaos, preparatory to re-establishing itself in a new order. Thus, Samhain is a night that exists outside of time and hence it may be used to view any other point in time. At no other holiday is a tarot card reading, crystal reading, or tea-leaf reading so likely to succeed.
There are so many types of divination that are traditional to Hallowstide, it is possible to mention only a few. Girls were told to place hazel nutsalong the front of the firegrate, each one to symbolize one of her suitors. She could then divine her future husband by chanting, ‘If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.’ Several methods used the apple, that most popular of Halloween fruits. You should slice an apple through the equator (to reveal the five-pointed star within) and then eat it by candlelight before a mirror. Your future spouse will then appear over your shoulder. Or, peel an apple, making sure the peeling comes off in one long strand, reciting, ‘I pare this apple round and round again; / My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain: / I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head, / My sweetheart’s letter on the ground to read.’ Or, you might set a snail to crawl through the ashes of your hearth. The considerate little creature will then spell out the initial letter as it moves.
This all important day could not be ignored by the early church, who re-dedicated it to the Saints in Heaven. It was instituted in AD 835 and called All Saints Day. The Christian religion, with its emphasis on the ‘historical’ Christ and his act of redemption 2000 years ago, is forced into a linear view of time, where ‘seeing the future’ is an illogical proposition. In fact, from the Christian perspective, any attempt to do so is seen as inherently evil. This did not keep the medieval Church from co-opting Samhain’s other motif, commemoration of the dead. To the Church, however, it could never be a feast for all the dead, but only the blessed dead, all those hallowed (made holy) by obedience to God – thus, All Hallow’s, or Hallowmas, later All Saints and All Souls. The Christmas Festival actually absorbed many Pagan festivals which welcomed the sun back after its winter sleep.Interestingly, this date (Old Halloween) was also appropriated by the Church as the holiday of Martinmas.
October 31, Halloween (All Saints Eve, All Hallows, All Hallow’s Eve, Hallow E’en) . Our modern celebration of Halloween is a descendent of the ancient festival called Samhain. Traces of Samhain still linger in its traditional associations with ghosts and witches. Modern Halloween is strongly connected with fear, it was a truly scary time for our Iron Age and early Christian ancestors. There was some real fear of the supernatural beings, especially if one was foolish enough to not offer food or to wander about near Sidhe where one might end up in the Otherworld unable to return to family and friends.
November 5, Guy Fawkes day, although the fires of this time are to do with the Gunpowder plot in 1605 they also perpetuate to the fires lit in Samhain to ensure the suns safe return after winter. November was associated with the cult of the dead. In Shetland there is the festival of Up-Helly-Aa is held in order that fires strengthen the winter sun.
November 23, St.Clements day, St.Clement was the patron of iron workers and on this day great feasts were held but in view of the importance of smiths in primitive society and the numerous legends concerning the Saxon smith and wizard, Wayland, who forged mail for the gods, a pre-Chrstian festival of smiths may once have existed.
November 30, St Andrews Day, There are indications tha Samhain’s slaughtering of stock was moved to this date, particularly in Scotland, where cool summers meant late harvests. The number of beasts to be kept through the winter depended on the harvest fodder available. This could not be assesed until all the crops had been cut, dried and threshed.
Decemder the 25th, Yule . The Christmas Festival actually absorbed many Pagan festivals which welcomed the sun back after its winter sleep. See Alban
January 25, St. Pauls Day, this day figured in the rural prophecy – if fine there would be good harvests, if rain or snow there would be scarcity and famine. Clouds and mist signifoed pestilence, and high winds war.