(This isn’t an anti any religion post. Your beliefs are your beliefs. I’m not trying to push any of my beliefs on you, please don’t try to push yours on me. This is here to show the history of one of my favorite holidays.)
The season of Samhain (pronounced SOW-win) is upon us. The greatest of the ancient Celtic fire festivals, it is usually celebrated on October 31st or the full moon closest to that date (November 4th at 1:23AM this year). It is from this ancient festival that we believe the modern-day Halloween comes from.
To the ancient Celts, Samhain marked the most important of four Celtic fire festivals. Located halfway between an equinox and a solstice, it is one of four cross-quarter festivals. Every year on the first frost after the full moon in October, families allowed their hearth fires to burn out. At this time, they brought back herd animals from grazing and completed gathering the harvest. After the fires died, they gathered with the rest of their tribe to observe the Druid priests relighting the community sacred fire using friction. The priests induced friction with a wheel and spindle: the wheel, representing the sun, turned from east to west and lit sparks. At this time, they made prayers and offerings or sacrifices related to their needs. The Crom-cruach came out: this was an emblem of the sun, and scholars are uncertain whether it represented a Pagan god or symbolized an aspect of nature embodied in a stone pillar. The villagers left offerings of food at the edge of their village for wandering spirits and faerie folk. There was also a sacrifice of a black sheep, a black sow, or cattle. At the end, every person returned home with a brand lit from the sacred fire, which they used to relight their own hearth and then to light bonfires or to set torches at the edge of their fields. These ancients considered it a sin to relight the hearth fire any other way. To the ancient Celts, Samhain marked the completion of the harvest and called them to put their energy into preparing for the coming winter. It also betokened a day when their ancestors would come to visit, followed across the veil by all sorts of creatures both good and bad that moved freely in the mortal world on Samhain night. Since faeries were often unfriendly, the Celts dressed themselves as animals or as other fearsome creatures as a way to prevent kidnapping by faeries and later by witches.
Rajchel, Diana. Samhain: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Halloween (Llewellyn’s Sabbat Essentials) (Kindle Locations 154-168). Llewellyn Worldwide, LTD.. Kindle Edition.
Not only did this festival mark the end of the harvest, it was a time the “veil between the worlds” thinned. This “thining of the veil” was of great import to the ancient Celts. (And it’s pronounced Kelts, with a hard “C”). It was a time to welcome lost family members back to ask questions of them, or just sit in remembrance of them. It was also a time that creatures of all sorts, good and bad could cross between worlds. I would like to think that when I’m gone, on this day I will be able to stand at the veil and watch my family. To see how they’re doing and maybe, somehow, let them know I’m thinking (if that’s the right word) of them. John Lennon (he of Beatle fame) is said to have told his son Julian that if he can communicate from the other side he will float a white feather in front of him. That would be cool.
In today’s world “fairy” brings up images of “Tinkerbell” and other cute little sprite-like creatures. That was not the thinking in the 3rd – 5th centuries CE. In more ancient times (maybe as far back as 30,000 BCE) these fairies and sprites were looked upon as belonging to the Mother Goddess (Cerrwiden for most of Isles) and were usually benevolent. It wasn’t until the coming of the Celtic Christians (which was separate from the Roman Catholics) that these fairies were taught to be mischievous at best, evil at worst.
Most of the “Old Gods” of the Druids (which were stolen by the patriarchal religions) were manifestations of the matriarchal religions’ Mother Goddess (or Mother Earth). To try to convert the pagans of the British Isles, the priests either turned these old Gods and Goddess into saints, as in “Saint” Brigid or claimed they were evil and cast them to live in the hills underground.
Our Jack o’Lanterns from 2016
So the Catholic church tried to change all the pagan holidays, Samhain being only one, into a Christian holiday. They didn’t invent these “holy days” so much as usurp them from the pagan calendar.
When Christianity spread throughout Europe, the church officials went about converting the area heathens by converting their holidays. Sometimes church officials did this by scheduling an observance for a different time of year. Other times, they simply renamed the old Pagan holiday for a saint’s day. In the fifth century, Pope Boniface attempted to repurpose the ritual of honoring otherworldly spirits and the dead, identifying it as a day to honor saints and martyrs, and moving the holiday to May 13. When the late October/ November fire festivals continued anyway, in the ninth-century Pope Gregory decided to move the saints and martyrs day back to the same day as the secular festival of the dead. In the case of Samhain, rather than negate the festival of the dead, the church resorted to declaring November 1 All Saints’ Day, alternatively called All Souls’ Day. Later the church added All Souls’ Day on November 2, possibly because All Saints’ Day failed to displace the Pagan rituals. Eventually both All Saints’ and All Souls’ became distinct holidays unto themselves, with All Saints’ an observance for souls believed already ascended to heaven, and All Souls’ as a day to honor souls possibly still working out some issues in purgatory. In Ireland, these days marked a time for family reunions after cow-milking season finished. Over time the night before November 1, called among many names Hallowe’en, Allhallows eve, or Hallowmas, became the repository for most of the original Pagan practices.
Rajchel, Diana. Samhain: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Halloween (Llewellyn’s Sabbat Essentials) (Kindle Locations 169-179). Llewellyn Worldwide, LTD.. Kindle Edition.
As you can see, it didn’t really work. We pagans are a stubborn bunch. But I have to admit, that when I did call myself a Christian All Saint’s Sunday was an especially meaningful day for me. To hear the names of the “saints” that had left us the previous year and to have a bell chime for each name was very moving.
Despite the best efforts of the ninth century Christian Church, Samhain did not so much return as it remained. That, alongside Halloween, speaks to humanity’s enduring need to acknowledge fear, death, uncertainty, and loss. Samhain offers a chance for renewal and a chance to connect lovingly with the dead again. Halloween offers a release from the norm— often exactly what people need after enduring powerful grief. Pagans celebrate life, and with Samhain they do so by revering the dead, celebrating the chain of lives that brought us all together.
Rajchel, Diana. Samhain: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Halloween (Llewellyn’s Sabbat Essentials) (Kindle Locations 423-427). Llewellyn Worldwide, LTD.. Kindle Edition.
I have quoted extensively from Samhain: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Halloween. This book is part of a series “Llewellyn’s Sabbat Essentials”. While I couldn’t find a link to the entire series (there are several books) this particular book can be found here on Amazon. From there you should be able to find the rest. While I found the “recipes & crafts” section rather boring, you may enjoy that kind of stuff. The rest of the book was quite interesting to me. If you buy it I hope you enjoy it!
P.S. Long live the Celts!