As one of the ancient Celtic Fire Festivals, the celebration of Samhain (pronounced – Sow ^ When) the Sabbat embraced on October 31st; dates back to the ancient Celts who lived 2,000 years ago. In medieval Ireland, Samhain remained the principal festival, celebrated with a great assembly at the royal court in Tara, lasting for three days. The Ulster Cycle is peppered with references to Samhain. Many of the adventures and campaigns are undertaken by the characters therein begin at the Samhain Night feast and can be reviewed in our pages on Myths.
Samhain itself is a Celtic word meaning “summer’s end” and particularly in the Scots-Gaelic dialogue was the word used in reference to the lunar month of November. The Celts believed that summer came to an end on what is now October 31st and the New Year began on what is now November 1st with the start of winter, following a lunar calendar and their celebrations began at sunset the night before.
A time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter. This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock around the world.
Bonfires played a large part in the festivities celebrated down through the last several centuries, and up through the present day in some rural areas of the Celtic nations. Villagers were said to have cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes the cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires, as well.
At sunset, clans or local villages would begin the formal ceremonies of Samhain by lighting a giant bonfire. The people would gather around the fire to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. It was a method of giving the Gods and Goddesses their share of the previous years herd or crops. In addition these sacred fires were a big part of the cleansing of the old year and a method to prepare for the coming new year.
During the celebration, many masked themselves and danced around the bonfire. Honoring the dead, hiding from malevolent entities, and honoring the gods themselves. As the day when the veil is thinnest, the ancients believed that souls were set free from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain.
The Samhain celebrations have survived in several guises as a festival dedicated to the harvest and the dead. In Ireland and Scotland, the Féile na Marbh, the ‘festival of the dead’ took place on Samhain. It is still the custom in some areas to set a place for the dead at the Samhain feast, and to tell tales of the ancestors on that night.
The Romans identified Samhain with their own feast of the dead, the Lemuria. This, however, was observed in the days leading up to May 13. With Christianization, the festival in November (not the Roman festival in May) became All Hallows’ Day on November 1st followed by All Souls’ Day, on November 2nd. Over time, the night of October 31 came to be called All Hallow’s Eve, and the remnants festival dedicated to the dead eventually morphed into the secular holiday known as Halloween.
There are many traditions that may have followed us from these ancient festivities, some fun things to add in your celebrations would be of course Bobbing for Apples, to engage in a good “autumn” cleaning to clear out the old and make way for the new. Starting the winter months with fresh and clean household items.
It was also believed that this thin veil between the physical world and the Otherworld provided extra energy for communications between the living and the dead. With these communications, Druid Priests, and Celtic Shamans would attempted to tell the fortunes of individual people through a variety of methods. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.