Celtic Halloween- Samhain


Halloween has roots in the Celtic celebration Samhain (SOW-in). Samhain means "End of Summer" and is often referred to as the Celtic New Year. It is the start of the dark winter half of the year, as opposed to Beltane (occurring on May 1) which is the light summer half of the year. The festival of Samhain occurs on Oct. 31st and lasts for three days. Since the 8th Century, November 1st has been All Saints' Day, or All Hallow's Day. The night before, October 31st, is All Hallow's Eve, which has been shortened over time to Halloween.

Samhain is the time of the final harvest of the year. Any crops still in the fields after this date were left as a sacrifice to Nature spirits. It was a time to take stock of what you had for supplies and slaughter the animals for the winter months. Fires are important aspects of all Celtic celebrations. At Samhain, huge bonfires are lit. Cattle were often driven between two fires as purification for the winter. In fact, the term bonfire comes from "Bone fires" since they would throw the bones of slaughtered animals into the fire as an offering for healthy livestock the following year. People would dance around these bonfires. It was a great honour to have your bonfire burn the longest. Ashes from the fires were spread over the fields to bless the land for the next year.

According to the Druids, Beltane and Samhain were the two times of year when the veil between this world and the Otherworld was blurred and ghosts and otherworldly creatures could walk the earth. Food offerings were left on altars and doorsteps for the spirits. Candles were lit and placed in windows as a form of guidance. Some would set extra chairs and place settings at the dinner table for ghostly guests. People would go from door to door in a practice called "souling" and pray for those who had passed in that home. They were given small cakes in exchange. This could be where trick-or-treating evolved from.

At this time of year ghosts, goblins, and fairies would play pranks on humans and may take their souls back to the Otherworld with them. People would dress up like these creatures to trick them so that they would not be taken. This was known as "guising". In Wales, the ghost of the White Lady and the Tail-less black sow were the most commonly reported spirits. If you encountered any of these beings, you would throw dust under their feet and they would have to release any souls that they had captured. Farm animals were anointed with holy water to keep them safe. If they showed any sign of sickness, they were spat on to ward off evil. Salt sprinkled into a child's hair would also keep evil spirits away. Salt was also sprinkled over doorsteps to prevent evil spirits from entering.

Turnips were carved into faces and placed on window sills with candles inside. Since the head was the most powerful part of the body, the "head" of a vegetable was used to frighten off any spirits. If a spirit managed to get past the lantern's protection, offerings of food were given to spare the home. As immigrants moved to North America, turnips were less abundant, so pumpkins were carved instead. There is also the Irish legend of "Stingy Jack" who was a greedy farmer who tricked the devil into climbing a tree and trapped him there by marking it with a cross. The devil cursed Jack to forever wander the earth at night with a candle inside a hollowed turnip as his lantern. This is where Jack-O-Lantern comes from.

Many events at Samhain foretold the future. People would write their name on a stone and throw it into the bonfire. In the morning, if you could not find your stone, you would have bad luck that year. Barnbrack Cake also foretold the future. There is a rag, coin, and ring placed inside the cake and then everyone is given a slice. If you got the rag, your financial future was not promising. If you got the coin, you would have a prosperous year. If you got the ring, you would soon find romance. Another custom was to place a perfect Ivy leaf into a cup of water overnight. In the morning, if your leaf was still perfect, you would have 12 months of good health. Another superstition is that Ivy gives you the power to see hags. A boy should cut 10 ivy leaves, throw one away and put the rest under his head while he sleeps. A girl should take a wild rose that has grown into a hoop, creep through it 3 times, quietly cut it and put it under her head while she sleeps. Hair cuttings were often thrown into the bonfires to predict their future love. If you put two large nuts into a peat fire representing two intended people, their curling together would be a good omen for the couple. If they jumped apart, it's best to look for a new mate.

Many games were played on Samhain. Since apples were an abundant fruit that could last well into the winter, it was commonly used in games. Snap Apple was a common game where apples were hung from a string and blindfolded children would try to bite the apples. If you could peel your apple in one go and then drop it onto the floor, it would reveal the initials of your future spouse. Blind date was a game where girls were blindfolded and sent out into the fields to pull the first cabbage they could find. If the cabbage had a large amount of dirt attached to the roots, their future husband would have money. They would then bite into the cabbage to see if their future husband would be bitter or sweet!

Have a Happy Samhain!

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