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Valerie Biel Asks What Are Your Traditions for October 31 and November 1?

Valerie Biel is the author of the YA series Circle of Nine. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, and read her last post here.

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.

Valerie Biel

Valerie Biel is the author of the award-winning Circle of Nine series (stories inspired by Celtic mythology and the stone circles of Ireland). Learn more about her on her website, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. joyribar

    I absolutely love learning about world cultures, ancient and modern, and studying their rituals. Thanks so much for sharing this. Every culture appears to have rituals involving light as a sacred entity, proving how closely connected we all are! Your post makes me miss the days of teaching mythology to my high school students.

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      You know, I don’t remember learning much mythology in school! Perhaps, I was not paying attention like I should have been?? But I sure love mythology now!

  2. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    What a great post about the history of Halloween, one of my favorite times of the year. It’s so interesting how our holidays are a blending of many cultures’ rituals. That’s what makes your article so important since it’s educational and enlightening. On Halloween, in my heart, I’m in costume dancing around a bonfire; in reality, my dog and I stay in and watch Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff! Thanks, and Happy Samhain/Halloween/All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day!

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      Yeah, I’m not planning on dancing around a bonfire either. Unless someone invites me to one at the last minute! I would go for sure!! I have my cloak ready.

  3. Margaret Mizushima
    Margaret Mizushima

    What an interesting post, Valerie! I really enjoyed the history you shared. We live in the country and don’t have trick-or-treaters, but when our children were young, we all dressed up for school parties and for early neighborhood trick-or-treating. Now we stay home and watch movies.

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      Sounds like a good way to spend Halloween to me. I grew up in the country and now live pretty much in the same place. When I was little, my mom would call the neighbors to say we were coming around, to give them a heads up and we’d trick or treat by driving the country neighborhood. Seems weird now, but it was great fun when we were little.

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Valerie — I had no idea you were posting this week. It’s serendipitous—a happy coincidence—because I’m featuring CIRCLE OF NINE in this Saturday’s bite-sized reviews. I’ll post my review on Amazon, Goodreads, and BookBub on Friday. I loved it!

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      Aww — that’s awesome! Thank you in advance!

  5. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    And I’m featuring Circle of Nine: Beltany in my newsletter this Sunday! Looking forward to reading and reviewing it.

  6. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    I haven’t been to Ireland but when walking in the forests of England and Scotland I could feel that primal pull of nature and understood the worship ideals. When I read the first Circle of Nine I pictured it all so vividly by recalling those hikes.
    Our traditions include pumpkin carving and roasting seeds. The seeds always make my tummy hurt, but I can’t help scarfing them.

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      Oh, I miss traveling so much!! I’d love to be in Scotland or England right now!

  7. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Thanks so much for this post, Valerie! It’s nice to be reminded that my favorite holiday is steeped in so much tradition. And that everything from the jack-o-lantern and wearing costumes to trick-or-treating has a deeper meaning in many cultures. I wish there was a way to bring the importance of the celebration back to modern times.
    Happy Halloween!

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      Happy Halloween to you, too! It was so much fun researching all of this when I began writing my series. I agree that it’d be wonderful if we did that–bring the importance of the celebration back. (Although, for some groups the importance is still there — the local Wicca Sanctuary Circle.

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