Samhain: the roots of Halloween and how to celebrate it in 2020

Photo courtesy of Beltane Fire Society.

By Kimia Mansouri, Contributor

In honour of the spooky season and all the little rituals we are used to during Halloween, I thought it would be well-deserved to look at the roots of this holiday. Since we all are social distancing and keeping it safe this year, you can celebrate Samhain (/ˈsaʊ.wɛn/) without jeopardizing anyone’s health. 

A Brief History of Samhain

What some people might not know is that Halloween could have Celtic Pagan origins — an idea that is often challenged. Due to the term “Celtic” forcibly positioning all the regions that belonged to the “Celts” under this name, we cannot assume the cultures within this limiting word share their significance. 

While Irish medieval literature and the Welsh medieval tales might have similar festivals, they are actually quite different from one another. It is important to note that most of the archaeological or historical evidence that we have available are either written by Christians or Romans, and are either often biased against Pagans — or they’ve been passed on in oral tales, which was common in the past. 

Halloween (Hallow Even), and All Saints’ Day are, in simple words, the Christianized version of Samhain, but not necessarily derived from it. 

Based on Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer), a 10th-century Irish mythology tale, Samhain is the first of the four “quarter days” in the Irish medieval calendar and the ancient Celtic calendar, which essentially marks the beginning of the year. In this ancient calendar, the year is divided into two; the light half when they celebrated fertility and embraced warmth, and the dark half when they prepared for the winter and the cold months ahead by gathering crops, making Beltaine and Samhain the most important feast days of the four. 

Today, the four quarter days include Samhain on October 31/November 1, Imbolc on February 1, Beltaine on May 1, and Lughnasadh on August 1. 

Additionally, the ancient Celtic calendar is also a highly debatable topic, as one of the oldest pieces of evidence being held in a museum, the Coligny Calendar, demonstrates summer as the beginning of the year, and even that is not conclusive. 

“[S]leepless from Samain, when the summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning; from Imbolc to Beltine at the summer’s beginning and from Beltine to Brón Trogain, earth’s sorrowing autumn” (Homer and the European Epic, 2011, p. 70).

So far, there is nothing deadly or scary about this occasion, so the question is: why and how is it relevant to jack-o’-lanterns? 

Like with many old manuscripts, there was a misunderstanding with the definition of Samhain. Some would say it simply means “summer’s end”, but some claimed that it’s referring to the name of a Celtic god called Balsab, meaning “Lord of the Dead”; but the latter claim lacks proper support. 

Another question that pique’s everyone’s interest: did they sacrifice humans? While Romans such as Julius Caesar believed they did, some others are opposed — and again, we are left with no reliable clue to answer this question.

The Rituals

Regardless of all the uncertainty about Samhain, we can be confident to declare it a three-day harvest festival that involved feasting, drinking, and bonfires. Furthermore, the “Celts” believed that during this time, the veil between this and the spirit world was at its thinnest and basically, something like Pixar’s Coco would occur where the ghosts and fairies (called “sidh”) would come to visit. 

When the sky is dark and spirits are roaming the earth, the logical solution would be lighting some bonfires to keep the dark at bay, and dressing up in costumes to either hide from or scare the spirits away. In actuality, we know so little of what precisely happened in Samhain, and whether it was all devoted to the dead. 

The assumption that Samhain was the festival of the dead belonged to James Frazer in his book, Golden Bough. Frazer explains how dead people revisit their old homes, but that could have been easily misunderstood with All Souls’ Day, which is a Christain time of praying on behalf of the dead who are in purgatory, a place between heaven and earth. Nonetheless, Kevin Danaher, in his book, The Year In Ireland, claims that portions of their crops used to be left on the ground for the spirits. 

Ritual bonfires are assumed to be one of the highlights of this event. The symbol is quite similar to that of Chaharshanbe Suri (The Scarlet Wednesday), which is a festival on the eve of the last Wednesday before the Persian New year. Jumping over these bonfires would purify and destroy all the harmful virtues in both cultures. In addition, Ronald Hutton, a historian in this field and the author of The Stations of The Sun, believed the bonfires were also used in divination. 

Hutton also claimed that people would wear costumes and sing songs in exchange for food, and they supposedly imitated the spirits and received the offering on their behalf, while staying protected from them. 

It is believed that in southern Ireland, someone would dress as the hobby horse, Láir Bhán, and lead a group of young people reciting verses from one farm to another, who were to be given food. If the farmers donated food, they would be rewarded by Muck Olla, an ancient Celtic god, and if they didn’t, tragedy would be bestowed upon them. 

Pranks were said to be also a part of this event, which brings us to trick-or-treating and Seán Na Gealaí (turnip lantern) that worked as jack-o’-lanterns. As mentioned before, these traditions vary between the Celtic-speaking regions. 

Modern Samhain

COVID-19 has limited the number of ways we can celebrate Halloween this year, so why not add some of the Samhain traditions into the mix? You don’t have to necessarily jump over a bonfire (although you should try it if you haven’t, it’s incredibly fun), but take some of the ancient rituals, as well as Celtic Reconstructionist, Neopagan, and Wiccan rituals, into account this year. Here are some ideas for this year’s Samhain:

  • Gather food for the winter, but make it a household event. Once you’ve harvested your crops with the members of your household or close friends, make dinner together and have a “dumb supper”. Invite your ancestors and leave empty seats for them. Take turns sharing beautiful memories you’ve had with your loved ones. Update the dead on the year’s events. (There is a lot to cover!)
  • Wear a costume, even if you’re not going to a Halloween party or trick-or-treating. An idea for a costume would be Láir Bhán.
  • Instead of conforming to the over-consumerism culture around holidays, decorate your home with items you can find or make.
  • Visit your friends and relatives that travelled all the way from the underworld to see you at the cemetery. Don’t forget to bring an offering. 
  • Sit close to your fireplace if you have access to one to get rid of harmful influences, and burn incense, candles, or sage to cleanse and purify your home. 
  • Fall in love with mortality. 
  • Listen to the Halloween themed Monday Music on The Peak and throw a private Witches’ Ball. 
  • Get in touch with your witch heritage, and summon the ancient gods so they’ll grant you a blessing for the winter. 
  • Have a seance with an Ouija board, or a divination ritual with a set of tarot cards.
  • Meditate, reflect, and face your fears to prepare for the new year.
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