Samhain is a mystical festival rooted in ancient Gaelic tradition. Samhain is a Gaelic word which means (literally) “summers end”. The ancient celts divided the year into only two seasons. Samhain is pronounced a little differently in different countries, so it is “sow-in” in ireland, “saveen” in Scotland and “sow-een” in Wales. It is definitely not pronounced “sam-hane” as it is by many in the USA.
It is an ancient festival with celebrations keyed to the end of the harvest, the shortening days and the coming of winter. Since ancient times in the Celtic culture, October 31st. has also been celebrated as a feast for the dead and also the day that marked the New Year.
This time of year marked the beginning of the cold, lean months to come; the flocks were brought down from the hills to live in sheds until spring. Some animals would be slaughtered and the meat preserved to provide food for the winter. All the harvest was gathered in; barley, oats, wheat turnips, apples etc. From November the Faeries would blast every growing thing with their breath, blighting anything that remained.
In addition to the agricultural significance, the ancient Celts also saw Samhain as a very spiritual time. October 31st. is exactly between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, and was considered a very potent time for magic and communion with the spirits.
The “veil between the worlds” of the living and the dead was said to be at it’s thinnest on this day; so the dead were invited to return to feast with their loved ones; welcomed in from the cold, much the same as the animals were brought inside.
The name Hallowe’en is derived from “all hallows eve”. When Christianity arrived in Celtic countries the church discouraged the fortune-telling, magic and communing with the dead as “evil”. A day of celebration of all the Saints of the Church, on November 1st. was created in the hope of displacing the old “pagan” customs. The celebration was called All Saints day, and the night before it came to be called All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en.
Many ancient festivals included bonfires, and Samhain was no exception. At Samhain a “new” fire was kindled for the New Year and brought into the house for good luck. The flickering candles inside hollowed out Turnips (or Pumpkins) were also thought to help the spirits who were abroad that night to find their way.
“Trick or Treat” ….. going from door to door for money, sweets or food has evolved in the USA. It is a more recent development and may have evolved from a number of traditions.
Because this was the beginning of the New Year, divination, or foretelling the future, and looking toward the coming year became part of the practice. Many of our hallowe’en traditions, such as bobbing for Apples, were originally part of the foretelling of the future. baking cakes containing “lucky tokens” also originated at this time, and is now used in some areas at the new year on January 1st.
Some of the things that were done to foretell the future included:-
Girls would place Hazel nuts along the fire-grate, each one to signify one of her suitors. She would then divine her future husband by chanting, “If you love me pop and fly, if you hate me burn and die”.
Several divinations used the Apple, the most popular Samhain fruit. “The Apple and the mirror”. Before midnight sit in front of a mirror in a room lit onlt by one candle or the moon. Go into the silence and ask your question. Cut the Apple into nine pieces. With your back to the mirror eat eight pieces then throw the ninth over your left shoulder. Turn your head to look over the same shoulder. You will see an image or symbol in the mirror that will give you your answer. (When you look in the mirror let your focus go “soft” and allow the patterns made by the candlelight, moonlight and shadows to suggest forms , symbols and other dreamlike images that speak to your intuition).