Halloween: Festival of Samhain

by Linda Pascatore

(C) 1998 by Grafx Computing

There's a dark night in autumn when one can catch glimpses of witches, ghosts, and monsters walking amongst us. The night will be lit by jeering Jack O' Lanterns, and you might even see dark figures gathered around bonfires. Halloween is approaching. Though the holiday has been commercialized and seems to be almost exclusively for children and about candy, there are still threads of ancient meaning woven through the festivities.

Halloween was originally celebrated by the Celtic people who lived in France and the British Isles more than two thousand years ago. Halloween was originally the eve of the festival of Samhain. Samhain mean "summer's end", and is pronounced "sow-in" or "sow-een" in Gaelic. Samhain was a Cross Quarter Day, and was approximately midway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice (check out our seasonal calendar).

It marked the end of the Celtic year--the last day of the old year and the eve of the new year. Occurring at the end of autumn, it coincided with the longer nights, withering and dying of leaves, the last harvest, and the coming winter. The Pleiades or winter stars, rise and night and darkness overpower day and light. At Samhain, the Sun God Lugh is overtaken by the Death Crone, Cailleach Bheare. Samhain is associated with the death of the year, when the world descends into the Crone's cauldron, to be reborn as the cycle of the year continues.

It was believed that on Samhain, the veil between the worlds was thin, and it was possible to see or hear spirits from the otherworld. The spirits of the dead walked freely with the living that night. It was also a day for divination, or prediction of the future. It is not surprising that divination was a theme at Samhain, since it is the beginning of a new year as well as the end of the old one. New Year's celebrations in most cultures have the dual purpose of looking back on the past year and on those we have lost, and making predictions and resolutions for the coming year.

Samhain was a time of preparation for the coming winter. The harvest was crucially important to rural societies in the past. A good harvest meant probable survival during the coming winter, and was cause for great celebration. Late fall is a time when the work of the summer and harvest is complete, but the weather is still good enough for traveling to one last large outdoor gathering. In ancient times, Samhain was a Sabbat, or high festival in the Celtic calendar. Scottish people had a "gathering of the tribes", a great clan festival, at this time. After Samhain, people would begin to turn inward. Their outdoor lifestyle of summer would end, and they would gather in to home, hearth, and family in response to the colder weather and coming winter.

The Christian church eventually co-opted the pagan holiday, as it has done with most of the ancient seasonal celebrations on the Celtic Wheel of the Year. Then Samhain became a day to honor the hallowed, or holy, dead. The church feast day was first called All Hallow's or Hallowmas, and was celebrated on November 1st. Thus October 31st became All Hallow's Eve, Hallow E'en, and finally Halloween. Later the church holiday name was changed to All Saint's Day, with All Soul's Day added a day later on November 2nd.

There are many rites to honor the dead on Halloween. In Gaul and Britain, fires were lit on hilltops that night. These were to light the way home for friendly ghosts and spirits and scare away evil ones. In Ireland, the burial mounds or sidh mounds were opened up and lit with torches so that the dead could find their way back. For many centuries after Christianity had replaced Samhain with All Hallows Eve, families would still stoke up their fires and set extra places and food at their tables so that their dead relatives could visit on that night.

In Brittany, a man would walk through the town before midnight on the eve of All Saint's Day to warn everyone of ghosts to come. In Italy, on All Souls' Day, people visit the tombs of dead relatives, write their names on the gravestones and leave calling cards. Some also dress skeletons of dead relatives to receive visitors, or touch rows of ancestor's skulls. In Mexico, the Days of the Dead are at Halloween time. Toys and jewelry are made in skeleton shapes, and people eat the "Bread of the Dead". They visit cemeteries and have feasts on the graves of their dead relatives.

In recent times, the emphasis on spirits of the dead roaming on Halloween has expanded to include other spirits such as little people, fairies, ghoulies and goblins. Jack O' Lanterns were used to scare away the spirits who roamed on Halloween. Originally in Europe, they were carved from large turnips, potatoes or beets. However, when Americans found native pumpkins which were larger and much easier to carve, they were adopted as the Jack O' Lantern of choice. Children were warned with the poem:


Hallowe'en will come, will come.

Witchcraft will be set agoing.

Fairies will be at full speed,

Running in every pass.

Avoid the road, children, children.


Costumes are worn on Halloween to scare away the evil spirits. They were originally used by adults as well as children. In fact, the original trick-or-treaters were adults asking for an alcoholic drink as a treat, rather than candy. Irish folks in costume would go begging at farms, threatening the owners with the damage that Muck Olla, a Druid god, would do if the farmer refused to give them some food. French children beg for flowers to place on graves on All Saints' Day.

The witch is currently a major symbol of Halloween. The word witch comes from the Saxon word wicca, meaning wise one. In old Europe, witches were wise women who had knowledge of herbs and healing. Some also practiced magic and divination, and might attempt to foretell the future or make a love potion. These women were persecuted and demonized by the Christian church. Their old pagan religion was misunderstood and inaccurately labeled devil worship. The current caricature of a wicked witch riding a broomstick is a far cry from the true meaning of the word. Black cats, spiders, owls, toads and bats are often associated with witches. These animals were supposed to be the witches' familiars, or animals used to help work magic.

Divination and fortune telling were associated with Halloween and were often an integral part of Halloween parties and celebrations. In many cultures, single young people would use various methods of divination on Halloween to foretell whom they would marry. In Scotland and Ireland, there is a custom called the wetting of the sark sleeve. It was adapted from a rite of Freya, the Norse goddess of love and marriage. A girl would take a piece of cloth and wash it in a stream. She would hang it in front of the fire one hour before midnight on Halloween, and turn it over half an hour later. This ritual was supposed to cause the spirit of her future husband to appear to her at midnight.

Often, the foods which had recently been harvested were used for divination on Halloween. Boys would bob for apples. If a boy caught an apple in his mouth, it meant that the girl he loved loved him. The boys would also play Snap Apple. In this game the boys would take turns jumping up and trying to bite an apple that twirled on the end of a stick suspended from the ceiling. The first boy to get a bite would be the first to marry.

Young girls would peel an apple with one unbroken pare, and throw the apple over their shoulders. Then they would look for the initial of their future lover's name in the apple paring as it landed on the ground. In Scotland, couples would put a pair of nuts in front of the firs. If both nuts burned up together, it meant that the couple would have a happy marriage. If one nut exploded, separation was foretold. In Scotland, single young people would be blindfolded and sent to the garden to pull a stalk of kale. A closed up white stalk would mean they were to marry an older partner, while an open green stalk meant a younger one. Then they were to taste the stem to see if their future mate was bitter or sweet.

In Ireland, a large pot of caulcannon stew is made on Halloween. The fruits of the harvest are used: mashed potatoes, parsnips, and onions. Also included in the stew were small objects used to tell the future. A coin in one's dish of stew foretold wealth, a ring meant marriage, a doll showed future children, and a thimble mean spinsterhood. In England, cakes were baked for All Soul's eve. A guest would be given a soul cake, and then be expected to pray for the dead in return.

In America today, some of the Halloween traditions continue. Most of the activities used in the past for divination have disappeared or lost their original meaning. However, it is still a time when spirits roam and Jack O' Lanterns light the night. People still enjoy a good scare! Many children today regard Halloween as their favorite holiday, even preferring it to Christmas. This does not seem to just be because of the candy collected during trick-or-treating. Rather it is the act of costuming itself that has become so important, to children and many adults as well. Halloween is one night that people can let their wild, crazy, and naughty selves be expressed with impunity. Little boys can act like the little monsters they want to be sometimes. Adults parties are common, and many bars have parties and costume contests. Both children and adults can be whatever they want to be on Halloween: either sex, cowboy, princess, ghost, witch, monster, animal or fantasy creature. There is a freedom; a feeling of power and release that comes with this choice. And maybe this is a form of divination. Dreaming up a new identity, designing a costume and making that dream come true, even for just one night, may give you the power to shape your own future.

Many people are currently exploring old Celtic traditions. They are looking for tribal roots in old Europe. Celtic music has enjoyed a resurgence. Some have formed groups who resurrect Celtic rituals and celebrate the old Sabbats like Samhain. The Druid religion and Wicca are gaining a following, and there has been a revival of Pagan gatherings.

Our Witch Tree in Chautauqua County

Others are just searching for a more meaningful connection with nature and are beginning to again honor the changing seasons as our ancestors did. My husband and I have hosted outdoor parties the past few Halloween nights. Most adult guests came in costume. Each year we had a bonfire and went for a scary walk in our woods. The first year we staggered people so they had to walk alone on a path lit by tiki torches to find an old gnarled witch tree with a Jack O' Lantern sitting up in its branches. Once we required each guest to climb under the roots of a large fallen tree and kiss a Jack O' Lantern for luck in getting through the coming winter. Another time we had each person walk alone in the dark to a skeleton head which detected nearby motion, lit up with red eyes and laughed spookily at them. The reward for completing these tasks was a taste of spirits (alcoholic spirits--a swig of Jack Daniels).

Surely, the veil between the worlds still grows thin on Halloween. This allows people to imagine otherworldly creatures and gives them the courage to recreate themselves. It opens their minds to contemplate the supernatural and the dark and mysterious aspects of the world. The magic of Samhain lives on.



The Mike Nichols Home Page, The Witches' Sabbats


"Witches, Pumpkin, and Grinning Ghosts: The Story of the Halloween Symbols", by Edna Barth