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Samhain: The Truth and History of a Very Sacred Day
As autumn brings the cooler weather and, in our region, a spectacular display of nature’s multi-colored palette, this time of year is marked by the tradition of costumes, masks, and candy… lots of candy. But it wasn’t always this way. Many believe Samhain (or today’s Halloween) to be a day to dress up and have fun. Others perceive it as an evil day that should be stricken from the list of holidays. Personally, I am of the belief that it should get more recognition for the traditional sacred day that it is (or was) and that its meaning and symbolic celebration and festivities should return to the more traditional importance it once had.
Note: Throughout this article, I will use the spelling as I have learned them. There are variations of spelling for almost every related term in this article. In addition, I will not use a single-viewpoint to describe Samhain, but rather a combination of beliefs as not to be one-sided on the issue. The reference theologies within this article will include traditional drawing from various Celtic pre-Christian theologies, Wiccan (including Gardnerian and perhaps even some Dianic), and for the explanation of the transition to Halloween, Christian and secular. It is also very important to understand that pre-Christian traditions were not written down. They were passed along orally. In fact, there are three primary members of hierarchy within a grove (depending on who you ask): the druid, the ovate, and the bard. It is from these oral traditions we get the ‘bard’ we know today. He was a story-teller and the record-keeper; who would be known today as the secretary (of sorts). Because of this fact, any information regarding pre-Christian theological traditions are little more than speculation, though we do have a basic idea of their rituals.
Before we delve into the modern philosophy of Halloween, let’s look back at its Celtic roots. Samhain (pronounced Sow-in or SAH-win or sah-WEEN) is the final harvest ritual of the year and is a member of the greater Sabbats. There are eight Sabbats throughout the year consisting of four greater (Oimelgh [Imbolc]/Candlemas, Belthaine, Lughnassadh/Lammas, Samhain) and four lesser Sabbats (Spring Equinox/Ostara, Summer Solstice/Midsummer/Litha, Autumn Equinox/Mabon, Winter Soltice/Yule). The terms used above are a modernization/English translation of the actual terms. Anyway, back to Samhain:
As stated, Samhain is the final harvest ritual of the year. It is to celebrate the bounty and prepare for the cold weather and dark days ahead and marks the ‘beginning of Winter’ (don’t confuse that with our current perception of Winter). Note that some say this is a call to the dark half of the year. This is not exactly true. While it partially is a celebration and preparation of the darker (read: shorter) days, it is in reference more so to the weather coming and looking ahead. Technically, since Summer Solstice is the longest day/shortest night of the year, it is a more accurate celebration of the incoming “darker half” of the year. Samhain was very important to the traditional Celts as they relied upon these ceremonies for their livelihood. Samhain marked a time to pull their livestock in and prepare them for the coming Winter. Being a harvest ritual, it also marked the time to finish off the harvest and store the bounty for the cold ahead and, often, there is a harvest feast involved. During this feast, the loved ones who had passed through the veil were invited back and many times, offered a place at the table. Some even set an extra place at the table to this day.
There were animal sacrifices on Samhain. However, the animals were not sacrificed to any deity. They were those of the herd that were to be slaughtered for food. A portion of the animal(s) would be eaten at the celebratory feast while the other portion would be saved for the Winter as it could more easily be stored during the cold months. While the slaughter, itself, was theologically ritualistic, there was a practical purpose that went well beyond “pleasing the gods”. There were similar rituals for the agricultural harvest as well.
Ritual Bonfires were a large part of Samhain for some time. The symbolism of the fire is in its representation of the Sun. As Winter draws near, fires are lit to maintain the light and to signify that though the nights are getting longer, the light will return. Some believe the fires were used as a ‘beckoning’ tool to the light. Whether you subscribe to that train of thought or not, it is evident that the fires did hold sacred meaning.
Traditionally, Samhain is not all day of October 31st. It actually begins at sundown on the 31st and is complete at sundown on November 1st. Remember also, however, that these dates did not exist at the time of Samhain’s inception. It was simply an agricultural mark through the solar year. It is because of this fact that some traditions don’t use the calendar at all, but rather use either the full moon that falls closest to the middle between the autumnal equinox and the Winter Solstice or the day of first frost. Side note: the Celts used a lunar calendar. This is important to note because you will find that all the celebrations begin at sunset and end at sunset for this reason. While the lesser Sabbats were marked by astronomical events, the greater Sabbats were marked as between these times. Samhain represents the end of the old and the beginning of the new and has been coined as “The Pagan New Year” which, in effect, isn’t far from the truth of it. This makes sense when you look at the practical definition of Samhain (harvest). It is the end of the growth period which moves us into the next agricultural cycle. There are some traditions that claim that it is representative of the veil between the worlds and in such, it is a day between the years, that it belongs neither to the old year or the new, but rather falls between the two. And in still other traditions, it takes place over a three day spread with the 31st falling in the middle.
Because it is seen as the day where the veil is thinnest between the world of the dead and the world of the living, this is a day where many celebrate and reflect on loved ones who had passed away. In some traditions, a symbol of the loved one (modern traditions often use pictures) would be placed on the altar, welcoming them back for another day of reunion. Other traditions claim the responsibility of keeping the dead from the living. These two very contrasting ideas are dependent not only on one’s tradition, but on his/her personal intent for the ritual, as some who follow one may pull off the other. For example, a tradition that uses it as a time of reflection may also use it as a time of banishment if needed.
But what about the costumes? Well, they also have some pre-Halloween roots. However, there is a debate on the reason for this as well. The more widely accepted reason is that people would disguise themselves from the dead by ‘dressing up’ to appear as one of them. This would allow the living to ‘blend in’ with the dead so as not to be taken. It is noted that the disguises were much more frightening than what we see today, meant to double as the dead. Which leads me to another theory (can I use that term here?); that it was used to ‘scare off the dead’ (which also relates to the modern day jack-o-lantern). Speaking of the Jack-O-Lantern, it has been noted that they have their roots (no pun intended) in what was used as light and doubled as a ‘warning to the dead’. However, they weren’t carved from pumpkins, but rather turnips.
So how did Samhain become Halloween? This was a transitional strategic move for conversion put forth by the Catholic Church in the 8th or 9th century. The Church labeled November 1st from sunrise to sunset as “All Saints’ Day” due to the fact that the pagans were already celebrating on that day. The Church claims that on that day during the celebration, there is a spiritual bond between the living and those in Heaven (see a similarity)? As time progressed, October 31st became known as “All Hallows’ Eve” or “All Saints’ Eve”. Drawing from the pagan traditions, All Hallows’ Eve morphed into today’s Halloween. and somewhere in there, turnips became pumpkins. One thing we didn’t touch on is the reason for the candy. So I will touch on it briefly here. In the paragraph above, I spoke of the costumes. Something I didn’t mention was “mumming”. The afore mentioned costumed folks would travel home to home (much like trick-or-treating today) where they would sing or perform for food or cakes. This act of performance while masked or costumed is known as mumming. When the transition to Halloween took place, as the years progressed, this wandering became trick-or-treating and the food became candy. In the U.S., trick-or-treating became a thing in the 1940s. Some people (the homeowners) unknowingly link themselves to the more traditional Samhain when they ask the children to perform a task or, in some cases, won’t hand out the candy unless the child says “Trick or treat.”
There are some who feel that Halloween is a day of evil and relate it to Satanism. As you can see from above, nothing could be further from the truth. First, Satan didn’t even exist in the minds of the traditionalists. Second, the entire ritual/ceremony was based around nature and the harvest. So hopefully, with this knowledge, the next time someone says Halloween is evil, you can tell them “It was developed by the Catholic Church in the 8th century.” And if you really have time on your hands, offer a historical explanation of the roots and meaning and necessity of the holiday in the most traditional sense. Or, just simply tell them to eat a Snickers.