October 31st marks one of the eight seasonal turning points on the Wheel of the Year, the festival called Samhain (pronounced sa-wen). Summer has exhaled and faded, and the nights lengthen. Leaves turn red, gold, and orange, and fall from the trees. The last of the harvest is gathered, and the remains of the crops are tilled back into the fields to nourish the soil for next year’s planting.
The Samhain passageway opens to winter, that dark half of the year where the earth slumbers and the seed gestates in the fertile richness. Beyond the Samhain doorway lies the deep cavern of the Earth Mother’s womb from which all that is intuitive, introspective, creative, and natural on this earth is birthed. The ancients considered this day as their ‘New Year’. They lit ritual bonfires to signify burning away the dross of the old year, finishing old business, and freeing the people from the worries of the past year. All hearth fires were put out and new fires lit from the great bonfires to symbolize this release and new beginnings.
Samhain comes from two words meaning summer’s end. The origin of Halloween lies in this ancient Celtic celebration. Hallow is an old word meaning holy or sacred; “een” is Scottish for evening. Thus Halloween means holy or sacred evening.
Samhain celebrates the mystical time when the usual barriers between our world and the Otherworld are thin, allowing contact between humans and the fairy folk as well as the spirits of the dead. The world of the seen and unseen realities come together and communicate. Candles are an important part of these mysteries. Brightly lit jack-o’-lanterns are echoes of the candle bearing spirit-guides that welcome back dead relatives for a short visit during Samhain.
In the seventh century, Samhain was Christianized. November 1st became known as All Saints’ Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead, the canonized saints. November 2nd was established as All Soul’s Day, where the loved ones who had passed on were remembered, prayed for, and honored. Thus, we ‘hallow’ and venerate the dead, and by doing so, acknowledge their energy which still flows through us.
Since the night before a festival was always the most important time (because the Celtic day actually began at night), the night before All Saints Day became All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs and customs intermingled, all intended to usher in the mysteries of this dark half of the seasons.
The colored leaves, cornstalks, and apples, that are so much a part of our modern Halloween decorations, are reminders of the autumn Samhain festival. Divination practices were customary. The modern day Halloween witch is a vestige of that time long ago when the older Wise Woman was revered instead of feared, and she was often turned to as an oracle, prophetess, and soothsayer.
This dark half of the year is presided over by the Divine Dark Mother. She is dark because of her rich fertility that transforms the old into the new, much like the winter months germinate the seed within the fecund black soil. The Dark Goddess helps us to strip away what no longer serves in readiness for rebirth into something better.
Traditional games played on Samhain often featured apples from the recent harvest, since at the heart of the Celtic Otherworld grows an apple tree which bears magical fruit. Celtic legends tell of heroes sailing the western sea to find this wondrous Otherworld, known in Britain as Avalon. The hearthside games of apple-bobbing reflect the journey across water to obtain the magic apple from Avalon.
Christian influence contributed its own unique traditions, such as trick or treating, which originally was collecting “soul cakes” on All Souls’ Day. Since the window back into our world is opened on Samhain to those who had already passed, people would dress up in scary costumes to protect against evil spirits who might also cross the thin barriers between the worlds.
Simple Samhain commemorations:
Decorate with your kitchen with bowls of gourds and dried ears of corn and corn stalks.
Honor the earth’s bounty by baking your favorite recipe with the season’s last harvest: pumpkin, apples, or autumn squashes.
Roast your own pumpkin seeds from your freshly carved pumpkins. Mix them with a little olive oil and toss with seasonings like tamari, garlic salt, or cayenne.
Two Samhain Rituals:
Choose one ritual – or both!
1. Create a simple ancestor shrine. First, make a small altar. A nice cloth with a candle in a candle holder set atop the cloth will do fine. Since black onyx is the gemstone for Samhain, you might put a piece of black onyx on your altar if you have some. Place photos or keepsakes on your altar that remind you of those family, friends, or pets who have died. Honor them by speaking their name aloud. Contemplate the gifts they have given to you, and then speak those gifts aloud. Put your hands over your heart and offer them your love – it is the never-ending connection you will always have with them. Give thanks.
2. Samhain is the New Year, a time to reflect on the past year and finish any old business from the previous year. Have a piece of paper, a pen, matches, and a fireplace or fireproof bowl nearby. Take a few moments to go within, through meditation or prayer. Acknowledge the Dark Goddess of transformation who presides over this dark half of the year. Reflect on any old business you would like to finish at this time. It could be old habits, old emotional wounds or grudges, any work or creative projects you’d like to conclude – whatever old business you’d like to complete or transform. Take your piece of paper and write down your reflections. Light a fire in your fireplace, woodstove, or fireproof bowl, as a symbolic remnant of the Samhain great bonfires of yesteryear. Place the paper in the flames and allow it to burn, to represent the finishing of your old business. As the flames consume the paper, ask the Dark Mother to help you in the releasing, transformation, and completion of your old business. Give thanks.