Tuesday, 30 April 2013


Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween) or Halloween had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead some 2,000 years ago. It is a Celtic word meaning "Summers End". The Celtic peoples, who were once found all over Europe, divided the year by four major holidays. According to their calendar, the year began on a day corresponding to November 1st on our present calendar. The date marked the beginning of winter or the darker half of the year. Since they were pastoral people, it was a time when cattle and sheep had to be moved to closer pastures and all livestock had to be secured for the winter months. Crops were harvested and stored. The date marked both an ending and a beginning in an eternal cycle.

Photo Source http://www.witchymama.com

In the Southern Hemisphere, in places like Australia and New Zealand it is Samhain that is celebrated on 1st May. The fields are bare, the leaves have fallen from the trees, and the skies are going gray and cold. It is the time of year when the earth has died and gone dormant. Every year on May 1, if you're in the Southern Hemisphere the Sabbat we call Samhain presents us with the opportunity to once more celebrate the cycle of death and rebirth, an acknowledgement that without death, there can be no rebirth. Samhain is a time to reconnect with our ancestors, and honour those who have died. This is the time when the veil between our world and the spirit realm is thin, so it's the perfect time of year to make contact with the dead. The powers of divination and communication are strengthened on Samhain night, and it is considered a powerful time to communicate with lost loved ones. It is a time of reflection, of looking back over the last year. At Samhain, the darkness increases and the Goddess reigns in her powerful aspect of the Crone.

Samhain became the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. In the early centuries of the first millennium A.D., before missionaries such as St. Patrick and St. Columcille converted them to Christianity, the Celts practised an elaborate religion through their priestly caste, the Druids, who were priests, poets, scientists and scholars all at once. As religious leaders, ritual specialists, and bearers of learning, the Druids were not unlike the very missionaries and monks who were to Christianize their people and brand them evil devil worshippers.

Photo Source http://blog.stonehenge-stone-circle.co.uk
In much of the Gaelic world, bonfires were lit and there were rituals involving them, as at Beltane. People and their livestock would often walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered livestock and the old plants of the harvest were cast into its flames. It was a method of giving the Gods and Goddesses their share of the previous years herd or crops. In addition these sacred fires were a big part of the cleansing of the old year and a method to prepare for the coming new year. Often families would engage in a good "fall" cleaning to clear out the old and make way for the new. Starting the winter months with fresh and clean household items. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. It has thus been likened to a festival of the dead.

During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of Wheel of Life. These costumes were adorned for three primary reasons. The first was to honour the dead who were allowed to rise from the Otherworld. The Celts believed that souls were set free from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain. Those that had been trapped in the bodies of animals were released by the Lord of the Dead and sent to their new incarnations. The wearing of these costumes signified the release of these souls into the physical world. Not all of these souls were honoured and respected. Some were also feared as they would return to the physical world and destroy crops, hide livestock or 'haunt' the living who may have done them wrong. The second reason for these traditional costumes was to hide from these malevolent spirits to escape their trickery. The final representation was a method to honour the Celtic Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields and flocks. Giving thanks and homage to those deities who assisted the village or clan through the trials and tribulations of the previous year. And to ask for their favour during the coming year and the harsh winter months that were approaching. 

Photo Source http://www.themeshack.net

In addition to celebrations and dance, it was believed that this thin veil between the physical world and the Otherworld provided extra energy for communications between the living and the dead. With these communications, Druid Priests, and Celtic Shamans would attempt to tell the fortunes of individual people through a variety of methods. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter. These psychic readings would be conducted with a variety of divination tools. Such as throwing bones, or casting the Celtic Ogham. There is some historical evidence that additional tools of divination were also used. Most of this comes from writings recorded by Roman invaders, but there are stories of reading tea leaves, rocks and twigs, and even simple spiritual communications that today we'd call Channelling Some historians have suggested that these early people were the first to use tiles made from wood and painted with various images which were the precursor to Tarot Cards. There's no real evidence to support this, but the 'story' of these tiles has lingered for centuries. When the community celebration was over, each family would take a torch or burning ember from the sacred bonfire and return to their own home. 

The home fires that had been extinguished during the day were re-lit by the flame of the sacred bonfire to help protect the dwelling and it's inhabitants during the coming winter. These fires were kept burning night and day during the next several months. It was believed that if a home lost it's fire, tragedy and troubles would soon follow. With the hearth fires lit, the families would place food and drink outside their doors. This was done to appease the roaming spirits who might play tricks on the family. "Trick-or-treating" is a modern tradition that probably finds it's roots in the early All Souls' Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for the family's dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as "going a-souling" was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighbourhood and be given ale, food, and money. "Dressing up" for Halloween gets it roots from dressing up around the sacred bonfire during the original Celtic festival. Some suggest, this practice originates from England, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world on Halloween. People thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes, so to avoid being recognized people would wear masks after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. In addition, these early English people, would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter or cause harm to their homes. A tradition obviously taken from the ancient Celtic pagans. 

Photo Source http://www.lifesmysticaljourney.com
As European came to America, they brought their varied Halloween traditions with them. Celebration of Halloween in colonial times was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies. Primarily because Celtic immigrants settled more in these regions than in the north. As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups meshed together a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included "play parties," public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbours would share stories of the dead, tell each other's fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country. In the second half of the nineteenth century, America entered an age of mysticism. What was more often termed spiritualism. Metaphysical groups and clubs began to spring up throughout the Golden Age and the wealthier set of Americans. At the same time, America was welcoming a new group of immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland's potato famine of 1846. This new cultural influence brought with it a melding of Irish and English traditions, and a new Americans culture was born. People began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today's "trick-or-treat" tradition. 

Photo Source http://www.egreenway.com

Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors. In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighbourly get-togethers, than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything "frightening" or "grotesque" out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century. 

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By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centred holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague Halloween celebrations in many communities during this time. By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centres into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated. 

Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighbourhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. By the 1990s, Americans have made Halloween one of the largest commercial holidays. Spending an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween costumes, accessories, decorations and pumpkins.

I thank http://www.paganspath.com for much of the information used above which explains so well the traditions and practises of Samhain or Halloween. 

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