The History of Samhain
This time of year, many people are getting ready to celebrate Halloween. What they may not know is that Halloween’s roots are widely believed to come from the ancient pagan celebration Samhain (SAH-win). Samhain is the Irish spelling, but other common forms of the word include the Scottish Gaelic “Samhuinn,” Manx Gaelic “Sauin,” and Old Irish “Samain.” Samhain is one of eight sabbats in the Wheel of the Year; an annual cycle of seasonal sabbats observed by many historical and contemporary pagans of various belief systems. Halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, Samhain is considered the Celtic New Year, signifying the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.
Historically, Samhain was celebrated by the ancient Celtic communities of Europe between October 31st and November 1st. Along with the seasonal changes, the ancient Celts believed that during Samhain the veil between the human and spirit realms were thin, allowing spirits to slip through. The spirits of ancestors were thought to visit their families, and so they were honored during Samhain. When a meal was prepared, the table was set with places for both the living and the dead, with food and drink provided as offerings. Other offerings included those given to gods and goddesses. Livestock were often slaughtered during Samhain, both for practicality of the upcoming winter and as sacrifices to the gods and goddesses.
Fires were also a prominent feature of the celebration. Household hearths were extinguished and then reignited with a torch from a communal bonfire. The Hill of Tlachtga, now known as the Hill of Ward, in County Meath, Ireland, was the location of the Great Fire Festival on the eve of Samhain. Today, the Hill of Ward has once again become a gathering place on Halloween for those seeking to participate in a modern Samhain festival.
Connections to Halloween
By the seventh century, Christianity had become the most common spiritual practice in Ireland. Pagan beliefs and traditions like Samhain were not forgotten though, as many of the Christian celebrations took influence from them. During the eighth century, November 1st was designated by Pope Gregory the III as a time to worship the saints, and Pope Gregory the IV later declared this as All Saints Day. The evening before All Saints Day became known as All Hallows Eve, later transforming into Halloween.
Halloween traditions in the United States evolved from the blending of many cultural traditions, and Samhain’s influence on the contemporary holiday is unmistakable. Following the 1840s potato famine in Ireland, many Irish came to the United States, bringing with them the traditions and stories of All Hallows Eve and Samhain. The Halloween tradition of dressing up in costumes is one of the clearest connections between the contemporary secular holiday and Samhain. While the spirits of ancestors were welcomed into the homes of the living during Samhain, people would often dress in masks and costumes to disguise themselves from other spirits who would seek to harm or steal them away.
Although not specifically associated with Samhain, the jack o’ lantern is another tradition that can be traced back to All Hallows Eve in Ireland. The folk tale of Stinging Jack tells the story of a man who fooled the devil into banning him from Hell. However, when he died, he could not enter Heaven due to his sinful life. With nowhere to go, his spirit roamed the world carrying a lantern made of a turnip and lit with an ember from Hell. Inspired by this folk tale, on All Hallows Eve the Irish would carve turnips and place a candle inside them. When this tradition was brought to the United States, turnips were replaced with pumpkins and became known as jack o’ lanterns.
Ways to Celebrate Samhain
Samhain is still celebrated by pagans worldwide and those of Irish and Scottish heritage. Even if you cannot take a trip to the Hill of Ward this year, there are many ways to celebrate Samhain personally and in your community.
1. Connecting with Nature – Samhain observes and honors the changing of the seasons, and so one of the easiest ways to celebrate this tradition is by finding ways to connect with nature. Nature walks, creating things with fall crops, and honoring nature deities are just a few ideas.
2. Fires and Community – Fire is one of the main symbols of Samhain, both in terms of bonfires and home hearths. You can even incorporate fire magic, rituals, or meditations into this practice. Community activities, parties, and spending time with loved ones is also a great way to celebrate Samhain.
3. Honoring Ancestors – You can honor your ancestors in many ways, including leaving them offerings, sharing family stories, through divination practices, or even by asking them to visit you in dreams or meditations. We have Mediumship and Messages, a gallery style mediumship reading, on Sunday, October 30th, where our mediums can connect to past loved ones for you.
4. Creating an Altar – An altar can be created for any intended purpose. During Samhain you may want to create an altar that specifically honors ancestors, deities, spirits, or nature. At Downtown Tarot Company we have a variety of altar supplies to get you started. Our Altare Collection features altar candles that are intuitively curated with herbs, crystal chips, and fragrance oils to enhance their specific intention. We also have a wide selection of altar cloths, crystals, herbs, and even deity statues from several belief systems, cultures, and mythologies.
5. Self-Reflection – As Samhain is considered the Celtic New Year, it is a time to reflect on how far you have come and where you want to go next. Consider challenges, accomplishments, lessons learned, and how you have grown over the past year. Some practices for reflection might include journaling, creating art, looking at photographs, completing unfinished projects, setting new goals, or planning for the upcoming months.
These are just a few of the many ways that you can celebrate Samhain. Do you have more ideas? Leave us a comment! We would love to hear about how you plan to celebrate Samhain.
Crystal Fact of the Week
Some crystals are described as having a “druzy” appearance. A druzy stone is created when small crystals form a coating over the surface of a rock fracture or geode.
Check Back with Us Soon
On our blog you can look forward to information about seasonal events, histories and guides on metaphysical practices, spotlights of new products, interviews with our readers, quizzes to find your perfect crystal, and much more!