The History of Samhain
Most people know of October 31st as Halloween. But long before kids were dressing up as pirates and princesses, Halloween was called Samhain. Celebrated during the daylight hours of November 1st, Samhain (pronounced “Sow-ween”) is the Celtic festival honoring the dead and marking the end of summer.
The Festival of the Dead
The ancient Celtic people lived 2,000 years ago in what is today Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. They believed that during Samhain, the veil between this world and the spirit world was at its thinnest. Ghosts of the dead mingled amongst the living, while the souls of those who had died during the past year traveled on to the spirit world. Bonfires were lit to illuminate the journey to the otherworld and food was put out to feed the spirits before their long trip.
The End of the Harvest
Samhain also marked the end of the summer and the conclusion of the harvest. Crops were burned in sacrifice to honor the Celtic deities. The animals were also brought in from the fields, and many were slaughtered and smoked to feed the tribe throughout the long winter. To honor their animals, the Celtic people also dressed up in costumes, wearing animal skins and heads.
The Connection Between Samhain And All Saints Day
During the early centuries of the first millennium, the Catholic Church dispatched missionaries throughout Europe to convert the Celtic people. Rather than wiping out the strong Celtic traditions, the missionaries “converted” these rituals into sanctioned Catholic activities (see also the Origins of Easter).
Thus in the 7th century, the Church began celebrating All Saints Day on November 1st, to honor any saints who did not already have a day of their own. A special mass called Allhallowmas was said on All Saints Day for all those who were hallowed. The night before All Saints Day became known as All Hallows Eve.
At the turn of the 11th century, the Church made November 2nd All Souls Day, a day to honor dead ancestors. Like Samhain, All Souls Day was celebrated by building big bonfires and dressing up in costumes. Unlike the Celtic animal costumes, however, the Christians dressed up as saints, angels and devils to invoke the spirits of their ancestors.
Is Samhain still celebrated today?
Absolutely! Modern day Wiccans and Pagans continue to celebrate elaborate rituals to mark the end of summer and coming of the winter. If you are interested in celebrated Samhain in the Celtic way, hold a ritual or enjoy a feast on each of the three nights of October 31st, November 1st and November 2nd.