11722 Westcross 84. I have often found it confusing by the fact that Samhain falls on the same day as Halloween. This time of year, it’s not surprising to find the media talking about Halloween being the holy day for Pagans. This reinforces the stereotypes of Pagans dabbling in evil energies, and it isn’t helpful to the cause.
Anything goes on Halloween?
Halloween in my town and in many other places has often been an “anything goes” type of occasion. In the early to mid-2000s, the common phrase for Halloween in Madison WI was “Come for the costumes, stay for the riots.” The Halloween celebrations of 2002 through 2005 ended in riots and police using pepper spray and tear gas. I lived in downtown Madison just two blocks from the event during that time and we would see property damage. (The city finally roped off the event starting in 2006. They charged admission, brought live music and brought control over the event. Both attendance and arrests plunging in subsequent years.)
From Samhain to Halloween to America
Halloween came with Scottish and Irish immigrants to the Americas between the 1600s and 1900s CE. The holiday’s name was originally Samhain. But Pope Gregory IV moved All Saints’ Day to November 1 in 609 CE in an attempt to replace Samhain. Henceforth, October 31 became known as All Hallow’s Eve, which got shortened to Hallowe’en. A look at how the holiday was celebrated can shed light on the modern day Halloween. It is both very similar and very different from Samhain.
Samhain is actually the name for November in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. In Gaelic, “mh” is pronounced either like a “v” or “w,” with the latter being most common for Samhain. Hence the pronunciation “sa-wen”.
The ancient Celts considered Samhain to be a time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest. People would use this time to honor their ancestors in various ways. This would include putting out pictures of the dearly departed. Others would look at this as a time to mourn the recently departed of the recent year. Another tradition involves hosting a “Dumb Supper” or “Silent Supper.” (“Dumb” refers to the older definition meaning lacking the power of speech. Given the pejorative nature of the term today, more and more people are starting to replace “dumb” with “silent.”)
Because the veil between the worlds has been considered to be very thin, people also feared evil spirits. One of the ways to ward off spirits was through “guising,” that is, dressing like evil spirits in order to confuse or scare away the real evil spirits. Another practice to scare away the evil spirits was to hollow out and carve horrific faces in turnips. This “Jack o’ Lantern” would then be lit up from the inside with a piece of coal or candle. Scottish and Irish immigrants to America discovered that pumpkins were much easier to carve than the turnips.
One Samhain tradition not common in the Americas is the building of bonfires. This would be a gathering point for the community for celebration and feasting. The light of these bonfires would invariably attract insects. Bats would fly above the bonfires to dine on the insects. This is why the image of bats is associated with Halloween.
Another Halloween tradition brought over from Scotland is the act of “bobbing for apples.” Called “dookin’ for apples” in Scotland, it was a means of fortune telling for the new year. Yet another tradition—this one on the more romantic side, involved “nut burning.” A recently engaged couple would throw a nut into a fire. If the nut burned quietly, it foretold a happy marriage. If the nut crackled and hissed, this would predict a turbulent marriage.
Romantic? Yes, Samhain can be more romantic than you might think. Other forms of romantic fortune-telling involved cabbage stalks and pulling kale. Another form of fortune-telling would involve hiding small symbolic trinkets in fuarag (a dish made of oats, sugar, and cream), or in a Halloween cake.
Samhain in modern times
Starting in 1995, the Samhuinn Fire Festival began to take place annually in Edinburgh, Scotland as part of an effort to revive the ancient festival in a modern way. A look at the pictures of the festival reveals a scene remarkably different from what might be found in modern day Halloween celebrations elsewhere.
Nevertheless, I had always been reluctant to celebrate the New Year around Samhain. I preferred the Pagan holiday of Yule, as that represented the shortest day of the year. That seemed to be a good place in which to start the year. But in seeing how the Earth Epic Calendar divided the year by the crossquarters (the halfway points between the solstices and equinoxes) I discovered something interesting. Starting the new year on the crossquarter right by where Samhain is celebrated, I noticed that a roughly equal number of days surrounded the December Solstice. Since the December Solstice represents the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, all of the shortest days exist in that one particular quarter. Pretty much all of the longest days exist in the quarter that has the June Solstice in the middle. (These day lengths are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere). As such, the traditional Celtic New Year sounds like a great time to begin the new year. On the Earth Epic Calendar, that day is about a week after the beginning of Samhain.
As such, I hope that you enjoy a most blessed Samhain and a happy New Year!