What is Samhain - A Little History
Samhain is an exciting time for us witches as it is the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next – it’s New Year! But what is Samhain, what is it’s history, and how can we celebrate it?
Samhain (pronounced sah-WEEN) is the final turning on The Wheel of the Year. From the Celtic tradition, this festival celebrates the third and final harvest of the year – of nuts and berries – and like many, is celebrated with fire. Otherwise known as Halloween, All Souls Night, Feast of the Dead, or Festival of Remembrance, whatever you call it, for many pagans, this is the most important festival of all as the cycle come to an end. Traditionally, after all the hard work of the harvests were over, fires were lit, communities gathered, animals were sacrificed and offerings from the harvest were left out for the gods in order that the next season would be fruitful.
This is a time when the dark half of the year truly starts. It is about endings and death. However, as with the whole of the Wheel of The Year, we honour the fact that death is just a part of the cycle. As pagans, we see death not as the end but as just another point on the wheel, leading us forward to rebirth and lighter days once more.
One of the things that makes this time of the year so special to pagans, witches and Wiccans is that it is the point at which the veil between the worlds is at it’s thinnest, meaning that the divide between the physical realm and the spiritual realm is more easily breached. Therefore this is the time when we can communicate with our ancestors – whether that be through dreams, visions or divination. This is why traditionally at this time of year many cultures remember and honour their dead, for example, the famous Mexican festival of the Day of The Dead. This is not a morbid process but a time of celebration as we look to our ancestors for wisdom. A traditional way to honour the ancestors would be with a Dumb Supper’ where places would be lain at the feast table for those family members who have passed.
The Veil Becomes Thin
The veil becomes thin for all creatures though, not just those of our lost loved ones, and many believed that more malevolent spirits walked the earth during the time around Samhain. That’s why jack-o-lanterns were invented – to ward off faeries and other ‘creatures of the night’. The Celts would have used turnips and other root vegetables grown locally. The pumpkins we use today were more likely introduced by North Americans.
So how did this Celtic pagan festival become such a popular secular tradition known as Halloween? Well, like many other festivals and traditions of the old ways, it was appropriated by the incoming Christians. Somewhat sensibly, the Pope at the time – Pope Gregory l – foresaw that the people of the land would not be happy to just do away with their ancient traditions, so he told the missionaries going to England to take the pagan customs and convert them Christian ones. In this particular instance, that meant taking the supernatural element of this dark Celtic festival and applying it to the supernatural nature of saints. Thus, Samhain became ‘All Hallows Eve’ – the evening before ‘All Hallows’ (meaning all saints) day.
Personally, I love the fact that at Halloween, all across the land, people are celebrating something that – known to them or not – is an ancient custom with many hundreds of years of tradition. This is one of the things that give a culture it’s rich history – the combining of many generations of beliefs into a melting pot of ideas and customs. But on the night of 31st October, when I consider what is Samhain, and what it means to me…when I carve my pumpkins and gather with my friends on this night, it will be with intentional remembering and reverence for the old ways and for the many women who were tortured and burned at the stake during The Burning Times.
A Samhain Ritual
Whether you are pagan, Wiccan, a witch or simply have recently lost a loved one who you would like to remember, I offer you here a simple ritual to honour your ancestors and past loved ones:
You will need:
A large central candle
A gathering of friends and family
Enough tealight candles for one person (If you can, use compostable tealights rather than the ones with metal holders)
- Gather your friends and family in a circle, with the central candle in the middle. Make sure that everyone present has a tealight
- Sit for a while in meditation and allow the darkness to enfold you gently
- Ask your ancestors to come to you. Call them to mind and try to really visualise them
- Light the central candle and repeat out loud “we welcome our departed loved ones into this space, and honour their presence among us”
- Allow each person to remember a loved one, and to light their tealight as they recall some way in which that person made their lives better
- Repeat until all the candles are lit
- Sit as long as you would like in this radiant remembering circle
- Offer thanks to the ancestors and allow each candle to burn out, if safe to do so
“As the sun goes down, far to the west
My ancestors watch over me, as I rest
They keep me safe and without fear
On the night of Samhain,
the witches New Year”