Samhain is an ancient Celtic Feast and seasonal festival that dates back to pre-Christian times in Ireland, and other Celtic nations like Scotland and Wales.
In modern times, people all over the world celebrate Halloween, but very few are aware of its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, previously celebrated all over Ireland.
Table of Contents
- Samhain – The Celtic New Year
- Samhain As A Harvest Festival
- Bonfires At Samhain
- Druids and the Spirit World
- Samhain – A Time For Diplomacy
- A Great Fair or Aonach at the Hill of Tara
- War On Hold From Samhain to Bealtaine
- A Few Extra Guests For The Winter Months
- Hunting Season Ended At Samhain
- Samhain – A Spiritual Festival
- Staying Away From Graveyards At Samhain
- Fortune Telling At Halloween
- The Many Names For Samhain
- Samhain Comes To America
Samhain – The Celtic New Year
Samhain, (pronounced sow-in or sah-win depending on Gaelic dialect), marked the end of fall and summer, and the beginning of the New Year in Ancient Ireland. In fact, only in recent years, the Irish actually started celebrating New Year on December 31st.
Samhain marked the end of the harvest season, and the beginning of winter.
When we celebrate Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, we are continuing the ancient tradition of Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead.
Halloween’s opposing festival, at the end of winter and the beginning of summer is Bealtaine or May Day Eve, celebrated on the last day of April.
Samhain and Bealtaine were significant celebrations at opposite ends of the Celtic calendar.
They are closely linked with the seasons and the food production cycle of days gone by.
There are four Celtic fire festivals which include…
These festive days occurred at the midpoint between the equinoxes and solstices, on days known as cross quarter days in the northern hemisphere.
Samhain lies between the autumn equinox or fall equinox (around September 21st) and the winter solstice (around December 21st).
Quarter days happen at the time of a solstice or equinox. Winter solstice became an important time for our Celtic forebears. They built the great monument of Newgrange to align with the rising sun on the shortest day of the year.
Samhain As A Harvest Festival
Samhain marked the end of summer and the beginning of the Celtic new year.
Cattle were rounded up for penning. Some were killed for meat and as a food source for the coming winter.
In ancient Ireland red meat was considered winter food. White meat or fowl was considered summer food.
Furthermore, fruit and berries were harvested, dried and stored. Crops such as corn and other grains were stored.
In addition, boats were brought ashore in preparation for the harsher, stormier weather of the winter months.
Blackberries or sloes were never picked after November 1st in Connemara. It was believed that on the last day of October, the fairies passed over any berries remaining on the bushes and made them unfit to eat.
For fear of a harsh winter, animals that might not make it through the winter were slaughtered at Samhain. Large gatherings of people came together at Samhain, and our Celtic ancestors feasted on meat and the foods gathered in the harvest.
In addition our Celtic forebears left offerings of food and drink at these great feasts and festivals. This practice was believed to appease ancestral spirits who might visit at this time of year.
Since dead ancestors could not speak the name for this feast was the Dumb supper. The Celts later shared leftover food with the poor.
Bonfires At Samhain
Just like at Beltaine, bonfires were lit to mark the feast of Samhain. These fires were believed to have great protective powers. Druids watched over the lighting of the fires at sundown.
Two large fires were sometimes lit side by side, and cattle were driven between the flames of the two bonfires. This practice was a way of delousing cattle and helped prevent the spread of fleas and lice during the winter months when cattle were kept in pens.
Druids tossed the bones of animal sacrifices into the new fire of Samhain. The term bonfire comes from this fire lighting practice at Samhain, with the origins of the word being bone-fire.
Participants offered personal prayers to the spirits by tossing symbolic objects into the blaze of the Samhain fire.
The ashes of Samhain bonfires were sprinkled on the land as a form of protection from evil spirits. I wonder if the druids knew that this practice would improve the soil and act as a fertilizer.
Druids and the Spirit World
Druids’ connection to the spirit world was strongest at this time of year.
Sacred fires of Samhain were believed to have the power to scare away evil spirits. It was thought wise for participants to stay close to a bonfire throughout the night of Samhain.
All fires were quenched before the great bonfire of Samhain was lit. This Samhain fire was believed to be a form of protection. The people relit their own hearth fires using a flame from the Samhain bonfire.
As they warmed themselves by the Samhain fire, and feasted with their friends and family, Celtic people often disguised themselves by wearing costumes made from animal skins.
Some ancient Celts even donned dried animal heads to dupe the spirits, and to frighten away any evil spirits. This is how our current day custom of dressing up for Halloween started.
Samhain – A Time For Diplomacy
Large political assemblies occurred to coincide with the availability of large food stocks at Samhain.
The feast was also associated with fairs, markets, horse races, and religious rituals. It marked the New Year and was considered the best time to plan for the future.
A general truce or armistice commenced at Samhain and it was at this time that meetings, even between sworn enemies, were possible.
Samhain was a time for great diplomacy. Celtic clans reached out to other clans and social activities beyond tribal boundaries flourished.
However, before daring beyond your own neck of the woods, you would need to be certain you had settled all your debts. Samhain was the time to pay back any borrowings.
A Great Fair or Aonach at the Hill of Tara
A great Assembly of Tara, the seat of the High King of Ireland in current day County Meath, was held at Samhain. This gathering was the most important Celtic fair or aonach (proounced ay-nock) of the year.
There was no shortage of alcohol at these festivities. Harvest usually meant a surplus of grain, which the Irish had no problem brewing into mead or beer.
And luckily for the merry Irish warriors of days gone by, war and fighting was put on hold at the time of the Samhain festival, so they drank away to their hearts content.
War On Hold From Samhain to Bealtaine
Celtic or Gaelic chieftans were well known for their warring ways, their tribal defense of their property, and their love of stealing other men’s cattle. One of Ireland’s greatest legends is called the Táin Bó Cúailnge, (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and tells the story of a mighty cattle raid that ended in all out war between the armies of Ulster and Connacht.
In ancient Ireland, war was not waged during the winter months, so warfare officially came to an end at the Festival of Samhain.
This reluctance to fight in winter may have been related to the limited day light at this time of year, and to the increased risk to wandering warring parties, of being stranded in bad weather.
Cattle raids happened between August and November. This too was for practical reasons. During the warmer and drier summer months, herds of cattle grazed on higher mountainous pastures. It was difficult to steal a full herd of cattle if they were dispersed over a mountain.
However, cattle were gathered together in herds in lower lying pastures by August, making them prize targets for raiding cattle thieves. As winter came, cattle grew weaker and were not easy to drive in foul weather. And so, cattle raids drew to a close during the colder months.
Samhain was a peaceful feast when no weapon was drawn.
Warfare may have been paused at Halloween, but rest assured, this time of peace did not stop our ancestors from planning a few skirmishes for the summer months as they toasted their toes beside the fires of winter.
A Few Extra Guests For The Winter Months
Since Samhain marked an end to hostilities between warring Celtic factions, Halloween also marked the beginning of a time when great hospitality was expected of the ordinary people of Ireland.
From Samhain to Bealtaine the farmers and people of Ireland provided lodgings and quarter to the warriors of the Fianna.
The Fian or the Fianna were the legendary protectors and army of Ireland. They guarded the coastline, preserved order, and fought any invaders or foreigners who might dare attack Ireland. But their services were not in demand during the cold and stormy months of winter.
From Samhain to Bealtiane the lords and kings of Ireland traveled the countryside with great expectations of hospitality, lavish feasts and entertainment.
These Celtic Chieftains could come knocking on your door at any time, day or night after Samhain, demanding lodging for their whole entourage including their family, warriors, and cattle. The luck of the Irish would definitely not be with you the night your mighty Chieftain came a knocking on your door.
A poet usually traveled with a king. The rulers of Ireland were thought to be at great risk of enchantment at Samhain and it was a poet’s duty to protect his king from enchantment through the power of his lyrical words.
It’s probably through this tradition that the Irish became so fond of poetry.
Hunting Season Ended At Samhain
Hunting was also limited by ancient Brehon law after Samhain. This allowed deer and wild hogs breed.
The end of October coincided with the beginning of the breeding season for wild pigs. Our ancient ancestors understood the cycle of life and the importance of conserving and renewing resources.
The pig is closely associated with the feast of Samhain. Pigs were gifted to lords and chieftains as a mark of respect. Ancient Irish Brehon laws specified that the food that is carried to a lord before Christmas is the Samhain pig.
This ancient Celtic symbol of the pig, was adopted by the Catholic Church. Christian manuscripts from Ireland showed St. Patrick giving the original Samhain pig to St. Martin, as a sign of appreciation for his tonsure.
Samhain – A Spiritual Festival
In ancient Ireland, Samhain marked the division of the year between the darker half of winter, and the lighter half of summer.
Samhain marked the transition from light into dark, and was the time when the great divide between this world and the otherworld was thought to be at its thinnest.
This thin veil between the human and spiritual worlds allowed faeries and spirits to roam freely at Samhain. Our Celtic forefathers believed humans could be tricked into passing through to the other side at Samhain, and might never be able to return to the world of the living.
Ghosts, faeries and inhabitants of the supernatural realm could easily pass into our world. The wearing of costumes and masks as disguises and protection from harmful spirits became associated with Samhain and Halloween, and this is how our current custom of dressing up to trick or treat began.
Legends state that the Banshee, a wailing woman of the fairy realm, could be killed by humans at this time of year.
The Pooka, a magical and mischievous spirit disguised as a large black horse with fiery red eyes, roamed freely around the highways and byways of Ireland at Samhain.
Staying Away From Graveyards At Samhain
In Christian Ireland, some of the ancient Celtic beliefs associated with Samhain, were not discarded by the Irish. When Samhain was first invented, Ireland’s people were pagans, but still a very spiritual people with druid priests and religious ceremonies.
The Catholic Church adopted November 1st as All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation to honor the dead.
As the Irish converted to Christianity, they also continued to celebrate Samhain on the Eve of All Saints Day, or All Hallows Eve. Hence, the name Halloween was born.
All Souls’ Day follows on November 2nd.
In Ireland people stayed clear of graveyards on October 31st. If you happened to hear the echo of footsteps behind you, as you passed a cemetery on Halloween, you were advised not to turn around.
Never look back at a ghost, or the dead could follow you home.
Food would be left outside doors to appease the dead. Front doors were left unbolted and the fire was left burning in the hearth, in preparation for a visit by dead relatives on the night of Halloween.
Fortune Telling At Halloween
Halloween was a time for fortune telling and divination according to old Irish traditions.
In days gone the night of the Samhain Festival, was when the Irish believed the future and past coincided, and for one night only every year, all time frames existed in the present.
If the future collides with the present at Samhain, what better time could there be for looking into what the future may hold.
Many superstitions arose that were said to be harbingers of a person’s romantic fate. You can read more about Irish Halloween Superstitions Around Marriage and Romance here.
The connection between Halloween and marriage is also underscored by the old Irish belief that Samhain time was the most favorable time for a woman to conceive a child. Samhain was also associated with Celtic fertility rituals.
The Many Names For Samhain
Samhain, may be the ancient Celtic name for this end of fall festival, but there are many other names found throughout the world today.
We most frequently use the term Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, but other common names include, the Night of the Spirits, the Festival of the Dead, or the Day of Divination.
But no matter what name you give to this harvest time festival, each and every name simply marks one of the most important seasonal festivals, inherited from our Celtic forebears.
Samhain Comes To America
During the 19th century many Irish immigrants arrived in the New World and made the USA home. They brought many of their ancient customs with them, including the celebration of Samhain or Halloween.
Did you know that the Irish brought Halloween to America?
The custom of making Jack O’Lanterns from big orange pumpkins actually started with the Irish making lanterns out of rutabagas or turnips.
You might be interested in checking out these ramblings all about the history of Halloween.
On the night of October 31, as you trick or treat around your neighborhood, remember you are celebrating your Irish heritage, and the ancient Celtic Festival of Samhain or Halloween.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad –Irish American Mom
Pronunciation – slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad – rhymes with parade
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