Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve is an autumn festival celebrated at large in contemporary culture. Although, what you may not know is that it was borne out of Celtic pagan practices. From ancient rituals to age-old traditions, here is all you need to know about Halloween and the festival of Samhain.
Halloween is a celebration recognised at large around the world. While it is often associated with creepy costumes, trick or treating, and excessive sugar consumption, the true origins of All Hallows’ Eve are frequently left untold.
What you may not know is that Halloween is the modern incarnation of the Celtic festival of Samhain – an ancient celebration that sheds light on the customs and beliefs of our ancestors.
Here we deep dive into Samhain and explore a rich and dynamic festival that dominated the pagan calendar for centuries.
The festival of Samhain
Marking the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of winter, the Irish festival, Samhain (which translates to ‘end of summer’), takes place annually. Samhain notably falls halfway in the calendar between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. It is one of four seasonal Celtic festivals which would have been recognised by pagans in pre-Christian Ireland. The other three include Imbolc (the celebration of spring), Beltane (May Day festival), and Lughnasa (which heralds the harvest season).
In the Northern Hemisphere, Samhain is recognised on the 1st of November, with its celebrations beginning on the 31st of October. For the Celts, their ‘new year’ was marked on the first day of November; the arrival of winter symbolised death and darkness, and with that, it was believed that on the eve before the new year, the barrier between the land of the living and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and could be broken. Stretching back to early Celtic Ireland, between 500BC and 500AD, Samhain’s significance in Ireland’s cultural heritage is mighty.
Written recordings of the pagan traditions of Samhain did not surface until early modern times, although its practices are widely undisputed. Given the pagan’s belief that the 31st of October was the time which the barrier between the dead and the living could be broken, celebrations of Samhain during the Neolithic period often consisted of burial tombs being opened to mark the gateway to the spirit world.
In ancient times, during the festival, cattle would be slaughtered in ceremonial rituals, and bonfires would be lit to scare away the dark presences that loomed in the autumn air. Feasts would take place to symbolise triumph and survival over the harsh winter to come, which brought with it so much death and decline – to the communities, the crops and the livestock. It’s important to note, however, that the pagans were a spiritual bunch and were felt closely connected to the earth in all its mysterious ways. Death, to them, was a part of life’s journey, opposed to something to fear greatly.
As the pagan tradition has continued to evolve in modern times, additional customs such as trick or treating (or guising, as it is often called), and mumming (whereby members of the community host door-to-door amateur theatre skits), began to become popular.
Today, the festival of Samhain is still practised in countries across the globe. The modern-day celebration of Halloween – while not the exact same festival – is largely based on this ancient Celtic festival and draws from its customs and practices.
How to celebrate Samhain
For those who want to channel their inner earth child and practice Samhain like a pagan, there are many ways in which you can do so. Below we list some of our top ways to recognise this Celtic cultural celebration:
- Light a bonfire: This is a sure-fire way to mark Samhain traditionally. Bonfires have been long associated with the festival and are also linked with Halloween today. Before you decide to embark on this venture, ensure you proceed with caution. Always have an adult present, take care when lighting fires in residential areas, and make sure you are abiding by local laws, too.
- Host a feast: One of the most common customs that mark the festival of Samhain are feasts. A harvest spread of fall colours is certain to ensure you are respectfully and traditionally marking this important time in the Celtic calendar.
- Visit the Hill of Tara: In Ireland, there are a few Neolithic passage tombs that were built and aligned to be illuminated by the sunrise during Samhain. The Hill of Tara is the finest of all. If you’re in Ireland during this festival, make sure to stop by – they even host an annual event for people to share in the celebration of Samhain.
- Light some candles: While death may seem a bit morbid to some, to the pagans it was a matter of life’s grand plan. During Samhain, light a candle for those who have passed and honour them.
- Embrace nature: If you plan on celebrating Samhain like a true pagan, we suggest you take it outdoors. Collect leaves and embrace the elements. Take time to reflect on the end of the season of abundance and consider the opportunity of new beginnings. A ritual alone or with friends is a great way to release some positive affirmations for the months to come.
While the contemporary festival of Halloween is more well-known today and practised at large, Samhain is still marked annually by those who seek to connect with nature, honour those who have passed, shed the skin of the months past and set intentions for the months ahead.
If you’re interested in experiencing a custom-designed tour around ancient Pagan sites of Ireland, get in touch today and we can help you map out the trip of a lifetime.