Before Halloween, There Was Samhain

By: Mark Mancini  | 

Samhain
A man representing the "Winter King" holds a flaming sword as he takes part in a ceremony celebrating Samhain in Somerset, England. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Say it with us: "sow-win." That's how celebrants pronounce "Samhain," the name of an ancient Pagan festival that helped lay the groundwork for modern Halloween.

Not that one displaced the other. Samhain's still around and is still celebrated today. Around the world, contemporary Pagans — from Wiccans to Druids — gather each year to observe the traditions and rituals associated with it. Bonfires are blazed; feasts are devoured. But Samhain isn't just another scary costume party. For Pagan communities, it's a deeply spiritual time of reflection and remembrance.

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Medieval Samhain

Historical records don't give us a very clear picture of what the first Samhain celebrations entailed. The festival is Celtic in origin and its name comes from the Old Irish language. During Ireland's early medieval period, which lasted from about 400 to 1100 C.E., Samhain marked the onset of winter.

Transition has always been a central theme of this festival. Samhain is said to be "when the summer goes to its rest" in the "Tochmarc Emire" ("The Wooing of Emer"), a medieval Irish tale.

Nowadays, Samhain is usually observed from Oct. 31 through Nov. 1. That puts it about halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. Medieval Samhain fests were likewise celebrated as October gave way to November.

(Side note: The Northern and Southern hemispheres experience autumn at different times. So modern Pagans living below the equator often wait until April/May to hold their Samhain rituals.)

By the time Samhain rolled around, the summer harvests were over and done with. Yet the harshest part of the winter season was still a few weeks away. This, according to the 2003 book "Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" by historian Robert Hutton, made Samhain a perfect backdrop for important tribal meetings in pastoral Ireland. Some lasted for days.

Samhain
A full moon rises behind St. Michael's Tower on the top of Glastonbury Tor, following a sunset ceremony to celebrate the festival of Samhain in Somerset, England. Pagans believe at Samhain, the division between this world and the otherworld is at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

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Samhain Spirits and Customs

Quite a few Irish folk stories were set during Samhain. Many involved the deaths of kings and other morbid or dangerous happenings. Supernatural forces became associated with the festival. Fairies, for instance, were said to be especially active during Samhain.

While historians debate its origins, at some point, the belief arose that Samhain was also a time when the spirits of one's dead ancestors had easy access to our world — opening the door for communication between the living and the deceased.

Samhain got some competition late in the ninth century C.E. More than 300 years earlier, Pope Boniface IV had established May 19 as a Christian day of remembrance honoring those who'd died for their faith.

But in 873 C.E., the Feast of All Holy Martyrs was moved to Nov. 1. Later, it would be renamed "All Saints' Day."

Was the date change a bid to "Christianize" Samhain rituals? The idea's been suggested, but some scholars have their doubts.

Nevertheless, Halloween as we now know it owes a huge debt to All Saints' Day. Another name that Christian tradition goes by is "All Hallows' Day." Past generations gave the night before (i.e., Oct. 31) a title of its own: "All Hallows' Eve." As time passed, this was shortened to "Hallow-ee'n" before the label ditched its punctuation marks and became "Halloween."

Isn't etymology fun?

Samhain
The Celtic festival of Samhain, which was later adopted by Christians and became Halloween, is an important date in the Pagan calendar as it marks the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter).
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

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Samhain in the 21st Century

Trick-or-treating. Costume parties. Watching the classic "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" special on TV. Halloween fans love to indulge in some — or all — these spooky pastimes. If you're a modern-day Pagan, you might have a slightly different itinerary on Oct. 31. (And Nov. 1, for that matter.)

"Dumb suppers" are among the traditions Samhain celebrants may choose to observe. This custom calls for a place setting to be left empty at an otherwise hearty meal. By design, the gesture honors a deceased ancestor or family member. All the living guests eat in silence as they reflect on the departed.

Sometimes, attendees burn messages written for the person in question. Sometimes, the dinner's courses are handed out in reverse order. With dumb suppers, there's a lot of room for variation.

Pagans can also get into the spirit of Samhain through quiet meditation. Or divination ceremonies. Or redecorating their personal altars with gourds, dried corn husks and other autumnal symbols. Because remembrance is such an important aspect of Samhain, the ensemble often includes photos showing loved ones who've died.

Outdoors, bonfire rituals are a Samhain staple among Druids. Pagan groups that keep gardens have also been known to treat the festival as a hard deadline for their harvests. Any edible material that isn't gathered by the time Samhain ends is left behind — as a gift to the spirits.

And in keeping with this festival's emphasis on transition, some Pagans treat Samhain as the beginning of the Celtic New Year.

Does all this mean Wiccans, Druids and other contemporary Pagans swear off Halloween? Not necessarily. There are those who enjoy the secular Halloween season, but don't engage with it Oct. 31. Others make time for both trick-or-treating and Samhain rituals.

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Originally Published: Oct 13, 2020

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Samhain FAQ

Is Samhain the same as Halloween?
No, while Halloween has roots in Samhain and they share some similarities, they are not the same. Samhain's still celebrated today from October 31 to November 1 by contemporary Pagans, from Wiccans to Druids. Halloween, or All Hallow's Eve, is commonly celebrated with costumes and trick or treating.
How is Samhain pronounced?
Samhain is a Gaelic word that's actually pronounced "sow-win".
What are the origins of Samhain?
While historians debate details about its origins and historical records don't give us a very clear picture of what the first Samhain celebrations entailed, the festival started in Ireland's early medieval period between 400 to 1100 C.E.
What are the traditions of Samhain?
Samhain celebrates the dead with a festival that usually features a bonfire and communion with the dead. Some pagans also get into the spirit of Samhain through quiet meditation. "Dumb suppers" are also popular, which calls for a place setting to be left empty at a hearty meal while guests eat in silence and reflect on the departed. Pagans often hold music and dance parties called Witches' Balls to celebrate Samhain.
What does Samhain celebrate?
Transition has always been a central theme of this festival. At some point, the belief arose that Samhain was a time when the spirits of deceased ancestors had access to our world, which opened the door for communication between the living and dead. In addition to communion with the dead, Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year.