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Pagan Holidays - Samhain, Halloween, October 31

Updated on June 14, 2018
PatriciaJoy profile image

Former writer and editor at the Pagan site at BellaOnline. I love sharing articles on religion and spirituality.

Samhain - A Rite to Honor the Dead
Samhain - A Rite to Honor the Dead | Source

Celebrating November Eve

Many Wiccans and other neo-pagans ring in their new year on November Eve also known as Samhain (pronounced sow-en or sah-wen) on October 31. Alternative dates include the time of the first frost or the exact cross-quarter date which is the time that is midway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice.

This holiday was one of the four fire festivals celebrated in Celtic culture and marks the end of the harvest when the earth enters a time of rest and darkness.

According to folklorist and Celtic language instructor Alexei Kondratiev, it is possible that the word Samhain is derived from two words, samh meaning summer and fuin meaning end, but scholars still debate the origin of the word. Source.

In Celtic cosmology, the dark precedes the light. The start of the day was not in the morning but after sunset. Winter was considered the dark half of the year. (Rees, see sources) Thus, the beginning of darkness at this time is why some neo-pagans celebrate Samhain as the start of the new year. On a deeper level, the primordial chaos before creation and the dark womb of the mother ushering in a newborn life help us better understand why darkness is feared but also respected.

Do you celebrate Samhain?

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Feasts of the Dead

This is one time of year when the veil between the otherworld and our world is thought to be thin. All manner of spirits including fairy folk and the souls of ancestors were believed to walk about unhindered by the boundaries of space and time. Those who are sensitive to this thinning may try to communicate with these beings.

Families would leave a plate of food outdoors to appease these spirits. Hearth fires were lit from the community bonfires and divination was used to gain knowledge of such things as the harshness of the upcoming winter, marriages, births and deaths.

The mischief making that happened on this night such as cross dressing and spooking neighbors by pretending to be their dead relatives may have been a precursor to our modern trick or treat tradition.

A plate of food, as mentioned above, would be one way to avert an unhappy occurrence or trick happening to the inhabitants of the house. This has become our Feast of the Dead and can be as simple as an offering plate or a full-blown ritual to honor our ancestors.

Witches' Brew
Witches' Brew | Source

Between the Worlds

Like the other Pagan festivals, this one too was hard to squelch, and All Hallows Eve, a Catholic feast, was moved to November to coincide with the Pagan holiday.

This Christian holiday marks the eve of All Saints Day when the souls of all saints known and unknown are honored. Its popular secular counterpart has come to be called Halloween shortened from Hallows evening or Hallowe'en.

Witches, goblins, vampires and ghouls are just a few of the things we associate with Halloween. This traces back to the belief that the dead walk among us this night.

The witches' cauldron, while prevalent as a plastic lawn decoration for the secular holiday, is a powerful symbol of death and rebirth for Pagans. It is also used as one of the tools for divination as a scrying bowl. Since the astral veil is thin now, psychic ability is believed to be enhanced.

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." - H. P. Lovecraft

Neither Good nor Evil

Of course, the popular holiday holds as much fascination for Pagans as does the more spiritual one. While some of us dislike the commercial monster Halloween is becoming, others revel in its acceptance by the mainstream. It's an excellent opportunity to not only dispel myths about its assumed evil origins but also to act like a kid and eats lots of candy.

Halloween's macabre overtone is the main reason for the association it has with evil. It can be argued that if the veil is thin there is no reason to believe only good spirits walk the earth. Pagans, at least those who are honest, don't deny this possibility. Why would we? Darkness is the counterpart of light, and we think that's a good thing. While one may feel more of an affinity to either darkness or light, we don't worship one or the other.

Hekate Torch Bearer Between the Worlds

Hekate as torch bearer between worlds
Hekate as torch bearer between worlds | Source

Dia de los Muertos - Mexican Day of the Dead

A feast time to honor the dead is not solely a European-centered concept, and not all rites are somber. In Latin America, Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead, is celebrated with lively family-oriented festivals and other celebrations to honor the ancestors. It coincides with the Catholic holiday and that religious tradition is deeply woven into traditional rites and celebrations. It has, however, inspired similar images and traditions in the greater secular culture like the European-originated Samhain such as skeletons and offering meals to the dead.

Ways to Celebrate

Samhain can be celebrated any way you wish. It is no longer just a Celtic phenomenon. Dark deities from all pantheons are given their just respect at this time. They are those chthonic underworld forces that remind us of the instability of both dark and light requiring a balance between the two.

A spirit plate can be left out for the fair folk and/or the ancestors with a prayer offering of praise or petition. Meditate and use divination for issues most important to you or as a guidepost for the new year. Most of all, remember that darkness is not always to be feared but respected as the partner of the light. And Happy New Year to you and yours!

Samhain Around the World

A Samhain Chant

"Fire red, summer's dead.

Yet is shall return.

Clear and bright, in the night,

Burn, fire, burn!

Dance the ring, luck to bring,

When the year's a-turning.

Chant the rhyme at Hallows-time,

When the fire's burning.

Fire glow, vision show

Of the heart's desire,

When the spell's chanted well

Of the witching fire."

~ Excerpted from a Halloween chant by Doreen Valiente in Witchcraft for Tomorrow

Holiday Music

Sources consulted

Farrar, Janet and Stewart Farrar. A Witches' Bible: The Complete Witches' Handbook. Phoenix Publishing Inc., 1981.

Kondratiev, Alexei. Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal. 1997. Accessed 2008.

National Geographic. Dia de los Muertos. Accessed June 2018.

Rees, Alwynn and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. Thames and Hudson, 1961.

© 2009 PatriciaJoy

Let us know how you celebrate.

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    • natashaely profile image


      5 years ago

      Samhain is such a wonderful time as the New Year starts, I have my favourite ritual every year yet i am intrigued by some of the ones on here and may later make an adaption to mine, I feel the only limitation of being solitary is that I don't benefit from the combined thoughts of those in a coven but I also get to do things my way and take on influences from those i want to.

      This is such a wonderful page, well written as the explanations are simple and effective. I enjoyed the music as I have not heard of most of them and will be listening to more from them.

      I hope today is special for you. Blessed be

    • Demaw profile image


      9 years ago

      Like you said, death does not equal evil. Everyone is going to die at some point. Probably since people don't want to die they associate it with evil. 5*


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