Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween – this is considered to be the most magical night of the pagan year. It sits exactly on the opposite side of Beltane Sabbat on the Wheel of the Year, and is considered Beltane’s dark twin. Samhain is a night of bright pumpkin lights, harvesting apples, playing “trick or treat” and dressing up in costumes. It is a night of stories about ghosts and divination using tarot cards and mirrors.
Halloween is the night before All Saints’ Day (Nov 1st). Celebrating at the sunset of October 31st seems quite appropriate for a Celtic New Year, although many ancient cultures which had no connection to each other (such as the Egyptians and the pre-Columbian Mexicans) celebrated it as a celebration of the dead. However, most of our modern traditions can be traced to the British Isles.
The Celts called it Samhain, which means “summer’s end”, which is in accordance with their division of the year into two halves, when summer lasts from Beltane to Samhain and winter lasts from Samhain to Beltane (Some modern Wiccan covens echo this structure by allowing the High Priest to operate the coven, starting with Samhain, and returning the control to the High Priestess on Beltane). According to the later division of the year to four quarters, Samhain is considered as summer’s end and the beginning of winter.
Samhain Sabbat is the end of the old year and a start of a new one. There are many images of Celtic Gods with two faces, and with a certainty the one who holds the power over Samhain was supposed to be one of them. Like its counterpart, the Greek Janus, he was supposed to be located at the threshold, one face turned to the past, remembering those who died during the past year, while the other face looking closely forward in hope, to predict what the next year will bring. These two themes are inevitably intertwinded in Samhain, as well as any New Year’s holiday.
It was believed that the dead could return to the living world for one night to celebrate with their family, tribe or clan. The Shea Hills in Ireland were opened, and were lit by torches along the walls so that the dead could find their way. The table was freed for additional space, plates with food were placed so that the dead could feast. There are many stories where Irish heroes invade the underworld while the gates are open, but everything returns to normal with the singing of the roosters.
Samhain is also a Sabbat for divination, and it is an excellent night to look into the future. The reason for this lies in the Celtic perception of time. Our perception of time is a linear path of milestones on a long road that stretches in a straight line from birth to death. The ancient Celts saw time as a cycle, rather than a linear form. In such a context, the New Year’s Eve represents a point beyond time, when the natural order of the universe dissolves back into primordial chaos, preceding self-healing in a new order. That is why Samhain is a night that exists outside of our time, and therefore can be used to watch over any other point in time. Samhain is the ultimate holiday for reading tarot cards or doing divination on crystal balls.
Christianity put an emphasis on Christ and his act of salvation 2,000 years ago, and has drawn a linear representation of time, where visions into the future are illogical. The church has made Samhain into a holiday for the blessed dead, all those who were devoted to God and made holy, and this is where the name All Hallow’s Eve or All Saints Day comes from.
Perhaps the most famous image of Samhain and Halloween is the pumpkin lantern. Various experts believe that those have Scottish or Irish roots. Such pumpkins were used as flashlights, for those who traveled on that night so that the pumpkin’s scary face would protect the person from the spirits of the dead. When they are placed on a porch or an open window, they protect the home from witchcraft.
Another famous custom is dressing up in costumes and play “trick or treat”. This game is of Celtic origin, with very important differences when compared to the modern version. First of all, the custom was not only for children, as adults participated as well. It also required a meal to feed one of the spirits. The tradition of almost exclusively dressing up in costumes of the opposite sex is in Scotland, where men dress as women and vice versa.
Halloween is one of the four important holidays for the Wiccan witches, or the most important of the eight Sabbats in the Wheel of the Year. It is sometimes called the ‘Great Sabbat’ because of its importance. Ironically, new covens tend to use the older name of the holiday, Samhain, which they discovered by modern research. At the same time, the older hereditary and traditional covens often use a new name, Halloween.