What is Samhain? Meaning of the pagan holiday, how it inspired Halloween and the traditions behind it

Halloween is upon us, and with it come customs like stuff or treats and pumpkin carving – but its origins can be found in ancient festivals stretching back centuries, if not millennia.

One of them is Samhain – the Celtic / Gaelic holiday that marks the end of the harvest season, the end of summer, and the darkening of the year.

What is the story of Samhain?

The Samhain Festival has its origins in Celtic culture in Northern Europe and has been widely celebrated throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, where it is referred to as ‘Sauin’.

Its origins probably date back thousands of years, but the earliest written descriptions date back to the 10th century AD. It appears in Irish literature, folklore and mythology.

It marks the start of the “darker half of the year”. It is the time between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

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At that time, the dead were honored when they passed from the human realm to the spirit world. It was the time when the veils between this world and the Otherworld were considered the thinnest – where spirits could mingle with the living.

With the advent of Christianity, the festival was adopted by Christians like All Saints, All Saints, and All Saints, helping to create what we now call Halloween.

A festival similar to the Gaelic Samhain was organized by the British Celtic peoples – it was called Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany.

When is Samhain?

In the northern hemisphere, Samhain takes place on November 1, but the celebrations begin on the evening of October 31. This is because in the ancient Celtic culture the day ended at sunset, not midnight.

However, some Neopaians celebrate it astronomically midway between the fall equinox and winter solstice, which is usually around November 6 or 7.

In the southern hemisphere, it is celebrated from April 30 to May 1.

How is Samhain celebrated?

As the festival is old and few written records are available, little is known about the original traditions.

Historian Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: from pagan ritual to festive evening, Recount Time magazine that the sources are limited and come mainly from folk literature.

However, he added: “Samhain was a time of inventory and perhaps sacrifice – possibly including animal sacrifice – during which pastoral communities [prepared] to survive the winter.

According to popular folklore, devotees dressed in animal skin costumes gathered for festivities by sharing food and alcohol while exchanging stories of the season.

There are also reports of whispering and deception, which meant that people in disguise would go door-to-door – similar to a trick-or-treat.

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The day was considered a threshold festival, when the border between this world and the Otherworld became thinner. This meant that fairy spirits could travel between worlds and they had to be appeased with food or drink.

It is believed that the Druid priests built huge sacred bonfires in which they offered sacrifices to the gods, after which the participants brought a flame home to rekindle the hearth and protect their homes.

Families would also use the festival to celebrate and honor deceased loved ones.

It was believed that the souls of deceased relatives should visit them and seek hospitality, so a place was set at the table for them during Samhain’s celebratory meal.

How is it celebrated today?

Many traditions from this ancient holiday were later incorporated into the Christian calendar, and Irish immigrants brought their customs to America in the 19th century, which have now mingled with Halloween as we know it.

These traditions included wearing costumes and masks to protect against harmful spirits and the harvesting tradition of carving pumpkin lanterns, which was done with vegetables like turnips in Ireland and Scotland.

Lanterns were placed in windows or near doors to scare away wandering evil spirits.

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In the United States, the vegetable available at this time of year was the bigger, sweeter pumpkin, which was also much easier to carve – and these became the jack-o-lanterns we see today. ‘hui.

Pumpkins became readily available in Europe in the 1980s and are now a staple of the spooky festivities on this side of the pond.

Halloween tradition such as trick-or-treating also derives from ancient traditions of Samhain, which saw people go door to door singing songs to the dead. As a sign of gratitude, they received cakes.

Samhain is still observed by Neopaians and Wiccans, who hold fire ceremonies and honor their dead.

There are many types of neopaganism, so celebrations can be suspicious, but most incorporate elements of traditional customs.