What does Halloween mean to you? Do you still get excited about dressing up? Do you decorate your home and/or workplace/space? When your doorbell rings do you grin from ear to ear when you open the door and see all of the children dressed up as pirates & princesses and monsters & mummies? But where did these customs, practices and traditions come from? Why do we participate in this macabre holiday every year? Where did it originate? Halloween or All Hallows Eve or, as the Pagan/Wiccan community refer to it; Samhain (pronounced Sow-wen) celebrates Nature's cycle of death and renewal, a time when the Celts acknowledged the beginning and ending of all things in life and nature. Samhain marked the end of harvest and the beginning of the New Celtic Year. But how did it start…
It is believed that the borders between the world of the living and the dead is thinner on this night - also known as 'Ancestor night' - so souls of the dead can enter the land of the living. Spirits roam free to revisit their earthly homes. The Celts looked to their ancestors to bring them guidance for the coming year and hoped to commune with the spirits at Samhain. Samhain is considered a celebration of life over death, and a time to remember those who have left the world of the living. Candles would be lit at the graves of loved ones. In
Halloweenoriginates from the ancient Celts' celebrations and is based on their 'Feast of Samhain'. The Catholic Church attempted to replace the Pagan festival with All Saints' or All Hallows' day, followed by All Souls' Day, on November 2nd.
The eve became known as: All Saints' Eve, All Hallows' Eve, or Hallowe'en. All Saints' Day is said to be the day when souls walked the Earth. In early Christian tradition souls were released from purgatory on All Hallow's Eve for 48 hours.
In order to protect themselves from any roaming evil spirits the Celts would appease them by offering them treats. The custom of wearing costumes on Halloween is thought to derive from the Celts disguising themselves at Samhain, so the spirits would think that they belonged to their own company. They could then communicate with the spirit world, known as 'souling'.
Traditions & Beliefs
Samhain is considered a time to eliminate weaknesses - our Celtic ancestors slaughtered weak animals that were not likely to survive the winter and their meat was salted and stored for the dark months, this has evolved into the custom of writing your own weaknesses onto a piece of paper then burning them.
It was customary at Samhain to leave an empty chair and a plate of food for any dead guests, so that they would not be offended. At the stroke of - believed to be the hour the dead visited - all remained silent in respect.
The custom of trick-or-treating may have originated from an old Irish custom of going door-to-door to collect bread, cheese, nuts and apples in preparation for the feasting at Samhain. When a candle flame flickers on Halloween night it is being touched by the spirits of dead ancestors. Those born on All Hallows Eve are believed to have the gift of second sight. If you catch a falling leaf on Samhain before it touches the ground it will bring you good luck and health for the coming winter.
Rituals & Games
Stones with a personal mark were thrown into the fire. These had to be retrieved from the ashes to ensure luck for the coming year, if your stone was missing or damaged it was considered a sign of forthcoming bad luck. Also known as 'Nutcrack Night', because it was a popular custom at Samhain to throw nuts on the fire - if a nut burned brightly it meant that the thrower would be alive in twelve months time, and if it flared up brightly it meant marriage within twelve months.
To see if a relationship will last, place two hazelnuts side by side and burn them over a fire. If they stay together as they burn then the couple will last, but if the nuts burst apart the relationship will break up. Baked cakes were offered up for the souls of the dead. All the family would eat the festival Soul cakes - known as 'barnbrack' cakes in
If any animals were suffering ill health on All Hallows Eve, then the farmer would spit on them to try to ward off any evil spirits that may take them. On the morning of November 1st a silver coin was thrown through the front door of the house. The coin had to remain where it had fallen in order to bring financial luck.
The tradition of face-carved pumpkin lanterns is thought to be derived from the Celts' placing of ancestors' skulls outside their doors at this time. Others see it as originating from using lanterns to ward off any evil spirits, which may be wandering through the thin veil into the living world on this All Hallows Eve.
The lit pumpkins also symbolize that in the darkness of winter the light continues within the seeds, tubers and bulbs dormant under the earth - they are still full of life and glowing like the candles within the pumpkins. The name Jack O'Lantern derives from an old Irish tale of a villain who after he died could not enter heaven or hell - a damned soul. So he was condemned to wander the land with only a candle to see his way (some say it was a hot ember from the devil), which he placed inside a gouged out vegetable to act as a lantern. Others believe Jack-O-Lantern was a mischievous spirit who carried a light at night and lures night travelers into bogs or marshes, which were the dwelling places of fairies.
The Jack O' Lantern used to be made from a turnip, but Irish emigrants to
Samhain was a time for divination and magic, the Druids would foretell the future on this powerful night. Many of the customs were performed by young people divining for their future husbands and wives - apples often figured; their connection with fertility is widely recognized: An old belief is that by peeling an apple on Hallowe'en and keeping the peel in one piece, and then throwing it over your shoulder you will discover the initials of a future lover. By candlelight go alone to a mirror and eat an apple before it, whilst combing your hair. Your future love will be seen in the glass over your shoulder. Ducking or bobbing for apples was a marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year. 'Dookin’ for apples' is thought to have originated from a Druidical rite associated with water. Young girls would stick apple pips to the outside of her cheek, with each one standing for her sweethearts. The last pip that stayed stuck was her true love. Blindfolded girls would go into the fields and pull up the first cabbage they could find. If their cabbage had lots of earth attached to its roots then their future sweetheart would have plenty of money. If they later ate the cabbage it would also reveal their future love's character - bitter or sweet! In
Samhain or Samhuin stands between the worlds of the living and dead and outside of ordinary time. It's the day that past memories meet the hopes of the future. The veil between us and the spirit world is at its thinnest tonight and we remember our ancestors, recent and from the distant past. It is death that gives life its purpose and decay that fertilizes new growth. It is a time to plant the seeds of new projects, allowing them to germinate over the winter months. It is also considered the time to end old projects and to generally take stock of one's life. Samhain allows you to come to terms with your past year and leave all mistakes and regrets behind you, in order to move on. Look forward to what the future holds. Use the magic of this time to say good-bye to a bad habit or addiction, an old relationship, or anything else negative in your life - Samhain is the night to leave it all behind.
For more on this Sabbat and others Llewellyn's Sabbats Almanac 2009-2010 is a good place to start. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me via email! Blessed Be this Samhain to one and all!
***Coming next time: Dia De Los Muertos, the holiday and the Tarot Deck!