Let us welcome the Celtic fire holiday of Samhain! Forms of this ancient Celtic festival have spread around the world, particularly with Halloween. Such popularity might be seen as both a blessing and a curse. The festival has changed in ways that probably would be almost unrecognizable to the ancient Celts. So in this post, I want to talk about the Samhain celebrated by the ancient Celts. It is important to note that the picture of ancient Celtic modern scholars have pieced together is incomplete. But there is still a lot of information out there. The best way to preserve a still-living Celtic culture is respect the original holiday’s context as much as possible.
The Samhain time of Year
In both the Irish language and the Scottish Gaelic language the name “Samhain” translates to “November” in English. (I know this because I am currently studying Scottish Gaelic.) The Gaelic word literally means “summer’s end.”
Celtic tradition divides the year into the light half and dark half. The dark half starts at Samhain and the light half starting at Bealtaine, in early May. The Celtic calendars also arranged times of the day, month, and year to have be considered either “dark” or “light”. (“Dark” in this case not being evil, but just part of the cycle). The calendars also arranged to have “dark” occurring before “light.” This is why the ancient Celtic day begin at sunset. This is similar to what the Hebrew and Islamic calendar have traditionally done. This “dark before light” theme also means that Samhain actually marked the beginning of the New Year on the ancient Celtic Calendar.
By Samhain, all the cattle and their caretakers have retired from the summer pasture. The final harvest needed to be gathered by Samhain. It was also the end of the hunting season. Most of the emphasis moved from outdoor activities to indoor activities such as preserving meat, spinning, and weaving.
A big celebration would be held in the village. Part and parcel of the Samhain celebration was the lighting of a sacred bonfire in the village. These fires would discourage spirits wishing to do harm or engage in mischief from bothering people. People in the village would extinguish the fires in their hearths at home and relight them with torches lit by the big bonfire, which was thought to bring good fortune throughout the long winter.
The liminal in Celtic culture
Celtic Paganism often puts a lot of emphasis on the liminal, that is, the state of transition between places or times. For example, the shore of a lake can be seen as a liminal place between the realms of the lake and the realms of the land. According to Celtic lore, a lot happens between the seen and the unseen world in liminal places. Samhain, as such, is seen as a liminal time of year, and likewise, a lot of activity between the seen and unseen worlds is reported to occur.
Upon guiding the Tuatha de Danann to the Otherworld, he taught them how to cloak themselves in the same way that the Sidhe do, so that they would not be visible to humans. But there is also a belief that this magic is apparently less effective around the time of Samhain.
From Scotland and Ireland to the Americas
The connection between Samhain and the modern Halloween can perhaps be best found in Ireland and Scotland. Scotland had All Hallow’s Eve on October 31 and even called it Hallowe’en with the apostrophe between the two e’s. But there was still recognition of this time of year as a liminal time. Children at this time of year engaged in a practice known as “guising” or disguising in order to hide themselves from the spirits. So the point of the costume was not to dress up “as something” but to simply be something other than yourself. In Ireland and Scotland they would also make jack o’ lanterns by carving them out of turnips.
Scottish and Irish immigrants poured into the Americas throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and brought their traditions with them. They figured out that pumpkins, which aren’t native to Ireland and Scotland, are much, much easier to carve. And the guising turned into the Halloween costumes we know today. A Scottish witch I used to communicate with expressed her dismay with what Americans have done to Hallowe’en, and I can’t say that I blame her.
A Samhain celebrated by the ancient Celts?
If you want a taste of what Samhain celebrated by the ancient Celts might have looked like in Scotland, the Bealtaine Fire Society in the city of Edinburgh has been putting on large public Samhuinn festivals for at least 15 years. Putting on such a festival in the modern era would certainly still be different from how they were put on in the past. Nevertheless, it is remarkably distinct from Halloween. This is a promotional video for one of these festivals.