Samhain: An Overview

According to Celtic lore, the year is divided into two halves, the dark half and the light half. The dark half begins on November 1st and is marked by Samhain. It was on the day of Samhain where the veil between this world and the otherworld was believed to be thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through.

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Like Hallow’s Eve, Samhain is also an ‘eve.’ Samhain preparations and celebrations begin early on Samhain Eve. Since Samhain marks the end of summer, families usually begin the day with an intense fall cleaning so they could begin winter with a fresh, clean home.

Like many things, Samhain is all about balance. There were both good and bad spirits that could visit them during Samhain. Family’s ancestors and loved ones were welcomed into the homes of the living and celebrated while costumes, masks, and other creations were used to disguise and scare off the spirits that wished to do harm.

The colors orange and black also have their origin in Samhain. The black represents the time of darkness and, according to some sources, the death of god(s) (linked to the sabbat Lughnasadh) and the orange symbolizes the hope of the coming dawn during Yule when god is reborn. Some believe Jack-o’-lanterns also have their beginnings in Samhain when turnips and gourds were carved into scary faces, hollowed out, and lit up with a candle in some cases. The horrific faces were meant to scare away bad spirits. However, there is also the belief that light leads spirits to the afterlife (which is why bonfires and lanterns are important to Samhain).

As quoted in Time, “According to historian Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Samhain was a “time of stock-taking and perhaps sacrifice” — including probably animal sacrifice — during which “pastoral communities [prepared] to survive the winter.”

Although some sacrifices were made they weren’t gruesome or uncommon for the time period. Typically crops and sometimes livestock would be burned in bonfires. These were offerings for the other side as a way to protect against evil and gain favor from the more malicious spirits that may try to malign or hurt the community.

Bonfires also raged throughout the night. All of the community would come by the bonfire and enjoy food, drink, and dancing. Some members of the community would wear costumes, usually dressing up as fearsome animals, as a way to scare bad spirits away from the community.

Because the veil was so thin it was also a popular time for human tricks. Many people played tricks, pranks, or got up to other mischievous business and instead of taking responsibility for these actions they were often blamed on fairies and spirits which were running rampant.

In addition to tricks, Samhain was also supposed to be the best time to try your hand at divination. Divination was accomplished in a variety of ways such as throwing bones, reading tea leaves, and other means. Or, people who would not normally want or desire their future told feel the need to find out or ask by the light of the bonfire.

In the 800s AD, due to the Christianization of Britain, the early Church attempted to take Celtic festivals and Christianize them. Pope Boniface IV called November 1st (Samhain) All Saints Day which had similar themes of honoring the dead and preparing for the winter. October 31st (Samhain Eve) was then named “All Hallows Eve”...and that would eventually phase into ‘Halloween.’

The above image is an 1866 painting Dancing Fairies by A Malmström. This work is in the public domain.