Pagans, begin our New Year by remembering their beloved dead around October 31 / November 2. It is called, by various cultures, Día de los Muertos, All Souls’ Day, Dia de Finados, Dia de los Ñatitas, Araw ng mga Patay, Bon Festival, Chuseok, Ching Ming Festival, Gai Jatra, among others.
Modern Wiccans and Witches, celebrate it as Samhain.
Beyond costume parties and trick-or-treating, the origins of Halloween can be traced to the Celtic New Year. The Romans, the Christian Church and, ultimately, commercialized society revised and reinvented this holiday, but inside the modern traditions traces of Halloween’s ancient past remain.
What is Samhain and how does it relate to Halloween? Samhain is the ancient Celtic feast of the dead that is thought to have marked the start of winter.
The Celtic year began with Samhain. Celebrated around 31 October, it was a time of deliberate misrule and contrariness, rather like the Roman Saturnalia. It was also a time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld was thought to be so thin that the dead could return to warm themselves at the hearths of the living, and some of the living – especially poets – were able to enter the Other world through the doorways of the sidhe, such as that at the Hill of Tara in Ireland.
At Samhain cattle were brought in for the winter, and in Ireland the warrior élite, the Fianna, gave up war until Beltain. It was a sacred time, whose peace was normally broken only by the ritualized battle of board games such as fidchell.
Because the Celts are believed to have measured time by nights rather than by days, as we do today, Samhain was the festival that marked the “New Year” for the Celtic peoples. The word Samhain is derived from the Old Irish language for the time of this festival and is still used in modern Irish to refer to the month of November. The word might be a linguistic inversion of the Irish-language term samhradh (summer) so that Samhain means “summer’s end.” Halloween or “All Hallow’s Eve” is the night of October 31 and is the eve of All Saint’s Day in the Christian tradition. Both feast days are connected with the dead and take place on the same calendar date and the modern Halloween can be seen to be a scene of merging of different cultural elements, some ancient, some pre-modern, some contemporary.
How is Samhain celebrated in Ireland?
Traditionally, Samhain was celebrated with feasting and guising. It was customary to eat certain meals at this time, such as colcannon (a mixture of mashed potato, cabbage, and red onion). Another food associated with this festival is fruitcake or bairin breac (barmbrack) which had items in it that were used for foretelling the future–a pea (or rag) meant poverty, a bean meant wealth, a religious medal meant the finder may enter a convent or seminary, a ring meant marriage, and a stick meant that the person who received this in their slice of cake would be beaten by the marriage partner. Nowadays, a barmbrack can be bought in the supermarket but doesn’t usually contain all of the above-listed items–many cakes only contain a ring. This change in the objects placed into the brack may reflect a change in attitudes; societal norms have changed and the stick that foretells a future of being beaten by a partner may no longer be acceptable in the modern mindset!
One theory on the origins of guising and dressing as ghosts may be in the notion that the dead are returning on this night and the change of appearance may protect the human from being recognized by the returning spirits of the dead. The sense of things being topsy-turvy and inverted may have given rise to people having fun and using an opportunity to change their appearance into something they are not ordinarily. Today, children dress up in various different costumes, some inspired by the latest films, characters from fantasy stories, and other areas of popular culture. Children trick-or-treat in Ireland nowadays but this tradition may have come back to Ireland from America. In pre-modern Ireland, it was known that Samhain was a time when people could play practical jokes and hoaxes, being a liminal time when such activity would be acceptable, but the custom of going door-to-door threatening to play pranks if candy and other treats are not received seems to be a later development. There seem to be many more organized children’s Halloween parties these days and a fear of allowing small children out at night might be a factor in this. Irish society, as with society generally, has changed in major ways since the time of small communities where locals knew each other’s children and would look out for them, into a very diversified and in many ways more dangerous society where children need to be accompanied by adults (thus lessoning the leeway to do tricks on niggardly people who don’t deliver the goods!). The private Halloween parties of today tend to move towards fancy dress. We can still see similarities in the games played at Halloween and those of an older time–snap-apple, bobbing for apples, and dares are still very prominent at parties.
To Witches and Pagans, Samhain is the Festival of the Dead, and for many, it is the most important Sabbat of the year. Although the Feast of the Dead forms a major part of most Pagan celebrations on this eve, it is important to remember that nearly all Pagans consider the disturbance of the dead immoral, and at Samhain only voluntary communications are expected and hoped for. The departed are never harassed, and their presence is never commanded. The spirits of the dead are, however, ritually invited to attend the Sabbat and to be present within the Circle.
Halloween represents the threshold between the world of the living and the realm of the spirits, and is a time when the veil between the worlds is very thin. The acknowledgement of the nature spirits that walk the earth on this eve can still be seen in the observance of children, and some young-at-heart adults, wearing masks and costumes and “trick or treating,” a time honored ritual many of us have done, and probably more than once. The spirits are represented by the children as they walk the earth in their many guises celebrating, albeit unknowingly, the ancient tradition of this Sabbat.
Some ideas for this Sabbat: “Bob for apples. There were many divination practices associated with Samhain, many of which dealt with marriage, health, and the weather. Ducking for apples was a marriage divination based on the belief that the first to bite into an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year. This is similar to the wedding tradition of the throwing of the bride’s bouquet for women and her garter for men. Apple peeling was another type of divination to determine how long one’s life would be. The longer the unbroken peel, the longer the life of the one peeling it Carve jack-o-lanterns. Take your children trick-or-treating; go yourself! Finish any incomplete projects and pay off lingering bills (if possible) to close out the old year and begin the new year afresh. Set aside some time for scrying or other form of divination. Leave food out for the birds and other wild animals. If you don’t have a wicker man left from Beltane, make one from dried grass or grains of some kind. Burn it in your Sabbat fire. If you don’t have a fireplace or firepit, burn him in your cauldron, barbeque grill or hibachi. Put pictures of ancestors who have passed on your altar for your Sabbat rite. Light a special candle for them, to show them the way to return and celebrate with you.
Visit the graves of your ancestors or, if this isn’t possible, the nearest cemetery. Be still here, and listen for the voices of those who have passed. Leave offerings of food and drink for them, and for the animals. Tell ancestral stories and tales around the fire, or at the dinner table. Have a mask-making ceremony in which you create masks to represent your ancestry.