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Wiccan Wheel of the Year: What is Samhain?

Updated on August 31, 2016
WiccanSage profile image

Sage has been celebrating the Wheel of the Year with her family for 25 years as a Wiccan; she's like the NeoPagan Martha Stewart.


Salutations, dear friends, old and new! I looked at the calendar and realized we’re gearing up for another major sabbat- a favorite of our community! We were just about to talk about Samhain, so pour yourself a cup of pumpkin juice and pull up a chair.

You know, of the eight common sabbats on the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, Samhain is probably the most well-known. Even people who know barely anything about Paganism at all are aware that many of us have a holiday that corresponds to the American secular holiday, Halloween. Among Pagans (particularly Wiccans), you’ll find it among the most popular holidays of the year, and one of the most universally celebrated.

It’s amazing that a sabbat so full of fun and festivities can also hold such a deep and poignant spiritual meaning, so let’s take an introductory look at Samhain.

Happy Samhain

The Wiccan Sabbat
The Wiccan Sabbat


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About Samhain

Samhain is seen as the last of the three harvest festivals (following Lughnasadh and Mabon) and it’s the time during which we recognize death as part of life. It’s something we all need to come to terms with and accept. Those of us (most of us) who believe in a spirit that lives on see death as merely a transition.

During Samhain, the ‘veil between the worlds’ is considered to be thin. We honor our ancestors and those who have gone before us. We pass on their names and stories as well.

Being a theistic religion, Wiccans generally honor sun and agricultural deities that fit the dying-and-rising God archetypes. These are the Gods who offer themselves up to die, only to rise up again and bring back life anew. We honor their sacrifice, as well as Gods and Goddesses reigning over death, the dead, the harvest and the dark half of the year.

The lessons of Samhain are to remember, respect and learn from the past; to live in the moment and be grateful for life in the now; and to look forward to and be optimistic about the promise of the future.

Wiccan Harvest Season

Samhain- the most misunderstood sabbat.
Samhain- the most misunderstood sabbat.

Samhain Myth Busting

  • Samhain and Halloween are not the same holiday, though they both stem from the same roots. You could call them cousins. You can read more about their tangled history here.
  • Though Samhain takes its name from an ancient Pagan holiday, it’s not been practiced unbroken and is not the same holiday originally practiced by the Celts and the Gauls.
  • Samhain is not, and never has been, a God of the dead. It’s also never been at time for human sacrifices to any such Gods. This was a misconception that was popularized by the 70’s classic movie, Halloween.
  • Jack-o-lanterns, trick-or-treating, costumes and even divination came from Christian influences, not Pagan.
  • Some Christian sources teach that Witches or Wiccans celebrate Satan’s birthday at Samhain (or at Halloween, which some think are the same thing). There’s simply no truth to this rumor.

A sampling of Halloween Carols by Kristen Lawrence

Got Samhain Music?

A Broom With a View
A Broom With a View

Whenever it's time to start decorating for Halloween, I throw in this CD. I love it so much, I also play it during my Samhain baking and on the holiday itself as I prepare for the evening festivities. The kids love it too...


Samhain Pumpkin Carvings!


Timing of Samhain

Samhain is most commonly celebrated on October 31st. Some Pagans make a several day festival of it. Others will celebrate it on the nearest full moon, or simply on their night off. Like all the holidays on the Wheel of the Year, we’re not so much commemorating a date but a season with a meaning. So don’t panic if you have to work, or can’t get off from a responsibility— there’s no ‘sin’ in not holding your holy day on the 31st.

Most people live in a temperate climate, at which Samhain is appropriate at the end of October/beginning of November. But if you live in a place where Samhain doesn’t make sense in October/November, you may find it more appropriate to move it. For example, Wiccans living in the Arctic Circle might prefer to move the festivities up a bit—if your final harvest is the beginning of September, why wait? On the flip side, Wiccans in the sub-tropics are usually planting in the fall and harvesting all the way through spring—for them, the summer is the season of death. It may be more appropriate to move the sabbat to May or June.

It’s a decision you have to make for yourself—move it to a seasonally appropriate time, or keep it at a time when it’s out of context in order to enjoy the seasonal festivities with the rest of the community. There is no right or wrong way, this is one of those situations in which you need to go by instinct.

Happy Haunts on Samhain

Samhain, despite the connection with death, is a festive season.
Samhain, despite the connection with death, is a festive season.

Celebrating Samhain

We don’t face the same kind of fears our ancestors did so long ago during the season of death, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think about our own mortality, or death as part of the life cycle. It’s a good time to reflect on our fears and think about the inevitable end to come to terms with it. This can really help put your life into perspective and make you think about where you are, and where you’re going.

Try this great altar craft for a Samhain Memorial Candle.

Even with all this death, Samhain is hardly a time of prolonged grief and mourning. It’s still overall a festive and joyous occasion. You’ll find a lot of decorations, feasting and merriment at Samhain celebrations. Some people don’t understand how death can ever include cheerful revelry. It’s because we don’t see death as a punishment or loss as personal; we simply respect it as the way life works. We embrace death as part of nature, and try not to dwell on the sorrow of it. We take joy in the bigger picture—the cycles of life—and take comfort in the knowledge that the wheel is ever-turning.

© 2013 Mackenzie Sage Wright


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