Perhaps surprisingly to many, October 31 is not just Halloween . . . but to those who follow pagan or wicca traditions it is Samhain (pronounced saah-win or saa-ween), which comes from the Gaelic word “samhuin” or summer’s end. It’s the traditional start of winter and marks the New Year as one of the eight annual Celtic festivals.
The Celtic Wheel of the Year plays a predominate role in the lives of the characters in my Circle of Nine Series.
I researched these holidays in great detail before writing the books in my series and was amazed at how our Halloween traditions derive from this pagan holiday. The Celts believed summer ended on October 31 and winter began on November 1, starting the new year. The holiday would begin at sunset on the 31st because the Celts followed a lunar calendar. A huge bonfire would be lit, and the people would gather around and make offerings of crops and animals to the gods and goddesses. This was a way to give the deities their share. Additionally, these fires were considered a cleansing ritual to close out the old year and prepare for the new year.
The Celts would wear costumes and dance around the fire to tell stories and honor the life cycle of the wheel of the year. Some of the costumes would honor the dead who were freed from the Otherworld on Samhain Eve. Not all of these spirits were benevolent, so other costumes were worn to conceal the participants from the harmful spirits that were also set free on this night. Finally, some costumes paid homage to the gods and goddesses to thank them for the blessings of the previous year and ask for continued protection during the harsh winter months to come.
After the celebration, community members carried an ember home to their own hearth and relight the fire they’d put out during the day. They believed that starting their home fire from the spark of the sacred bonfire would protect them, and they kept the fire burning continually through the next months. In fact, if a fire went out it was considered extreme bad luck. After lighting the fire, the families would place food outside their doorways to appease the wandering spirits and keep them from playing tricks on them.
Once the Romans began to conquer Celtic territories, they brought two new traditions which merged with Samhain. Feralia was the Roman holiday celebrated late in October which honored the passing of the dead, and Pomona’s Day honored the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The apple (the symbol for this goddess) was incorporated into the holiday in the tradition of bobbing for apples.
In the 8th Century AD, Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day from May to November 1, making October 31 All Hallows’ Eve, that eventually was shortened to Hallow’een. It is widely accepted by scholars that this was a way for the church to place a sanctioned holiday on a day that was already celebratory for pagans. Later the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day to honor the dead. In many cultures (even today) it is celebrated much in the same way as Samhain with bonfires, parades, and costumes representing saints, angels, and devils.
Two other traditions may have evolved from pagan ritual. One is the traditional Halloween colors of orange and black. For pagans black represented the darkness of the waning light of the season, while looking forward to the coming of the dawn of Yule. The second is the tradition of the jack-o-lantern, which some say is a modern version of the tradition of lighting the way for the dead with candles inside gourds along outdoor pathways.
However you celebrate this day, it is clear that worldwide and across many religions that this is a significant time of celebration honoring both our earthly and spiritual worlds.