Halloween | Samhain

Whether we call it Halloween or Samhain – do you know about the true roots of Halloween tradition and celebrations?

What we celebrate now originated from ancient Celtic traditions, many of which involve honouring our ancestors, and remembering loved ones who passed earlier in the year.  Many of these great traditions are around food – and fire!

At “Hallow’een” we’re marking Samhain, Summer’s End and some (like me) celebrate this time as Celtic New Year. Samhain is pronounced “sow – en”… from the ancient Celtic Irish word ‘Sainfuin”- sain = summer and fuin = ending).

The festival of Samhain was held to honour the Sun God’s death and transition to the dark lands of the Underworld where he then resided as Lord of Death until the Sun is then reborn at Yule, Winter Solstice.

This time was our Celtic ancestors’ time to come to terms with death and their own mortality. The Crone was called upon for comfort; the dying God mourned. The Moon Goddess is at her strongest now. As the Sun God retreats, the Goddess mourns him until his rebirth at Yule.

Since this is the New Year it is a good idea to consider and reflect on our accomplishments, actions and deeds over the previous year and what we might like to change or create in the New Year.

Ancient customs, superstitions and traditions:

This time of year was known by different names such as Samhein, La Samon, the Feast of the Sun. People gathered at the ritual centers of the tribes, for Samhain was the biggest feast of the year. Celtic tradition at that time said that all those who died each year waited until Samhain before crossing into the spirit world to begin their new lives. Many Irish and Scottish people have the ancient custom of burning black taper candles in all of their windows for protection against evil or malignant spirits. They also place plates of food and drink outside their homes, usually by the front and back doors, to appease wandering spirits in the hopes of preventing malicious acts by those spirits.

The ancient Celts extinguished their fires in their homes on Samhain so that all the tribes could relight their fires from the Druidic fire that was kept burning in the Middle of Ireland, at Usinach, (Gahagan). In Ireland and Scotland, the custom of extinguishing one’s home fire and relighting it from the festival bonfire has continued into modern times People still celebrate by building bonfires on hilltops and high ground. The fire is known as “Hallowe’en bleeze” and custom once included digging a circular trench around the fire to symbolise the sun.

In ancient Ireland the ‘Feast of Tara,’ focused on the High King’s home as the heart of the sacred land, the point of conception for the New Year. In every household throughout the country, hearth-fires were extinguished. All waited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year –not at Tara, but at Tlachtga, a hill twelve miles to the north-west. It marked the burial-place of Tlachtga, daughter of the great druid Mogh Ruith, who once may have been a goddess in her own right. The Druids believed that the Lord of Death gathered all the spirits of the dead who had been made to enter the bodies of animals as punishment for their sins and redistributed them, on Hallowe ‘en, the last day of the Celtic year. It was also believed that the spirits of the dead came back to their old haunts at this time. Fires were lit to guide them home and to frighten away evil spirits.

The tradition of carving scary faces into turnips or swedes began in ancient Britain as it was believed to ward off roaming evil or lost spirits on this night when the veil between worlds is thinnest. Pumpkins only came into use as a substitute for the swede and turnip as settlers in America found them easier to grow. Dressing up in scary masks or costume at Halloween also comes from the old tradition of scaring away evil spirits or passing as one of them to avoid their attention.

Today’s trick or treating comes from several places and traditions of old. An old Irish tradition called for going door to door to collect money, bread cake, cheese, eggs, butter, nuts, apples, etc. used to be in preparation for the festival of St. Columb Kill. The custom seems to have originated with a ninth-century European custom called souling. It is a tradition for some to leave a plate of food outside their homes or the last homes of the dead. A candle placed in the window guides them to the Summerlands, and burying apples in the hard-packed earth “feeds” them on their journey.

Another old tradition was the begging door to door for “soul cakes” made out of square pieces of bread and currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the generous. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could help a soul’s speedier passage to the Summerlands. An old Belgian Samhain custom was to prepare special “Cakes of the Dead” (small white cakes or cookies). A cake was eaten for each spirit honored with the belief that the more cakes you ate, the more the dead would bless you.

A farmer would walk his herds to circle the boundaries of each field to ensure prosperity for the oncoming year. This was a throwback to the calendar of the Druids again.

In parts of England, it was believed that the ghosts of all persons who were destined to die in the coming year could be seen walking through the graveyards at midnight on Samhain. Many of the ghosts that people thought they saw were said to be evil. For protection, jack-o-lanterns with hideous candle-lit faces were carved out of pumpkins and carried as lanterns to scare away the malevolent spirits. Sweethearts placed a pair of nuts in the fire. If they burned quietly they would have a happy marriage but if they sparked it would be a fiery one.

Of all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods were believed to draw nearer to Earth at Samhain. Many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. Objects symbolising wishes or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire, and at the end of the ceremonies, lights would be nurtured from the great fire of Tara to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people reflected upon new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come. After the bonfires had burned out the ashes were sprinkled over the fields to protect them during the winter months, with the added bonus of improving the soil at the same time.

The ancients believed that gazing into the flame of a candle on Samhain will enable you to peer into the future.
It was believed that if a person lights a new orange-colored candle at midnight on Samhain and lets it burn until the sun rises, he or she will be the recipient of abundance in the coming year.

If a candle should suddenly go out by itself on Samhain, as thought being blown out by wind or by breath, this is said to be a sign that a spirit has come to call.

It was said that if you go to a crossroads at Halloween and listen to the wind, you will learn all the most important things that will befall you during the next twelve months.

Many people also believed that mirrors are the gateways to the other worlds, and cover mirrors with black cloths to keep the gateway closed.

Samhain Moon Lore:

If the moon is new on Samhain, this indicates that the coming year will be fertile ground for new beginnings to take place, such as the start of a new project, a new career, or even a new way of thinking. For those desiring children, a new moon at Samhain was considered a lucky omen, indicating a new birth within a year.

If the moon is waxing on Samhain, this indicates good luck throughout the coming year. It also indicates growth and an increase of all things that are positive in nature.

If the moon is full on Samhain, this ensures that the powers of all forms of magick and divination practiced on this night will be at their greatest. A secret wish made at midnight will be realised within the coming year.

If the moon is waning on Samhain, this is perfect for elimination of such things as bad habits, unhealthy relationships and obstacles foreseen within the coming year. Write them down and burn them in a fire.

If the moon is in the dark phase on Samhain, not a good year ahead to be taking risks! Exercise extreme caution in all of your endeavours within the next twelve months.

How to celebrate or observe the traditions:

I focus on gratitude and celebrating the lives of loved ones and ancestors gone before me.

On this night we are remembering and honouring our loved ones who have passed on, especially those who may have passed since last Samhain. We honour our ancestors, and feel mindful of the cycle of life… however we remind ourselves that just as the ancients believed, death truly is not final – its just a transition from one world to the next.

A Samhain tradition dating back to ancient times is the “dumb supper”. While we feast from the last harvests, we also set a place at the table for our departed loved ones. Photos and mementos, funny stories and remembrances of wonderful times are passed around to honour them. The spirits of our ancestors assist us on this night and draw close, with the veil between worlds  at its thinnest if we wish it to be.

You can decorate your altar or create a sacred and special corner with photographs of passed loved ones, carved turnip or pumpkin lanterns, oak leaves, conkers, apples, nuts, sage, pomegranates, squashes and other late autumn fruits, and autumn flowers such as marigolds and chrysanthemums. Appropriate incenses include nutmeg, cinnamon, mint and sage, but use what you feel is right for you.
Fire is an important element in Samhain celebrations, to protect the family and land through the winter darkness, to banish mistakes and negativity – often known as the “bale fire” and torches were lit to honour the dead. A candle in the window is still believed to help light the way home for lost souls.

Depending on the practicalities a ritual fire may be lit… be it an outdoor bonfire around which friends and family gather, a fire in an open fireplace, a display of indoor candles or a firebowl and lots of incense! I use orange, gold and black candles (beeswax are nicest – try my friend’s handmade beeswax candles at Rainbow’s End Creations) Choose your candles accordingly: black ward off negativity, gold to recognise the Sun God essence and orange for the creative energy – joining of the higher and lower forces within and without. Pure white will do if colours aren’t available.

For the New Year aspect of Samhain, its a good time to think about cleansing. I use my elemental cleansing blessing and a little fire ritual.

Think – “What do I wish to be free of?” Write on a piece of paper an aspect of your life which you wish to be free of: such as anger, a baneful habit, toxic relationship, misplaced feelings, disease… and asking to be freed of these things, burn the paper in a safe, fireproof receptacle, preferably outside. As it burns ask for any negativity associated with this aspect to be transformed into positivity.

You could even say a few words along these lines:
“I create this fire to transform… May these energies that bother me be reversed:  From darkness to light… From bane to good… from death to birth.”

Celebrate with food.  Baking bread and cake, cooking up a storm in the kitchen with swede, turnip, potato, root veg, apple, berries, nuts, pumpkin and other seasonal veggies and fruits is a great traditional way to honour the occasion. Elderberry wine, blackberry brandy and mead are also fine drinks to mark the occasion.

Samhain is traditionally a time for divination and reflection on the past, present and future and deep reflection and meditation on change, transitions, endings and beginnings, and setting the intention to create order from chaos.

Divination methods such as scrying and tarot card reading support our inner meditations at Samhain.

What do you wish to be rid of? What do you wish to attract into your life? Focus on gratitude for every experience in the past year, and on abundance and prosperity in all good things for the days to come…