A good part of the world observes Halloween on October 31 as a day for remembering our dear departed. But did you know that before there ever was a Halloween celebration, the Celtic and Gaelic people of Ireland, Scotland, and Great Britain celebrated Samhain? In fact, Halloween evolved from Samhain.
What Is Samhain?
For ancient Celtic and Gaelic people (as well as modern Pagans and Wiccans), Samhain is the first day of the Celtic new year. It is also a day for honoring the dead. These people believe that on the night of Samhain, the first of November, the veil separating the world of the living from the world of the dead becomes so thin that the souls of the dead can pass through and join their living relatives. Samhain is also considered a period of introspection – a time for connecting with the inner self, for reflecting on the past and envisioning the future.
Samhain is also an end of harvest festival. It is believed that all crops need to be harvested before Samhain. Additionally, all cattle and livestock must be herded to their winter folds. Otherwise, the crops and livestock will be destroyed by the winter cold.
On Samhain night, people dressed in costumes to trick the spirits of the dead from harming them. Food is left out at the doorstep of each house as an offering to the spirits. Families feast in silence at supper, leaving the space at the head of the table empty but set with food and drink to honor ancestors. Bonfires and pumpkin lanterns are lit to drive evil spirits away.
When Christianity spread to the lands occupied by the Gaels and Celts, the Catholic Church discouraged the celebration of ancient pagan rituals like Samhain. To reinforce Christianity into the lives of Gaels and Celts, the Church instituted All Saints Day and All Souls Day, observed on November 1 and 2 respectively.
Nonetheless, ancient and deeply ingrained traditions die hard. Thus, Samhain, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day eventually merged into one celebration that we now know as Halloween. However, Samhain is still celebrated in its traditional form in Gaelic and Celtic countries like Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Modern Samhain Celebrations in Ireland
In Ireland, the biggest Samhain celebration comes in the form of the Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival. The Festival is held for three weeks, from October 14 to November 6 this year, at County Meath, reported to be where Samhain and modern Halloween celebrations all started.
The Festival is filled with a wide variety of activities, all designed to appeal to whatever way you like to celebrate Halloween. There are storytelling, parties, and pumpkin lantern contests for children. Pumpkin picking, cooking classes, and rides are available for families. For thrill-seekers, there are haunted walks and tours galore. If you want to experience Samhain in the more traditional way, there’s a guided meditation session, as well as a torchlit procession and festival of fire.
Modern Samhain Celebrations in Scotland
The Scots celebrate Samhain in many ways. One of the most popular is the Samhuinn Fire Festival hosted by the Beltane Fire Society. This year’s Fire Festival will be on October 31 at 9:00 PM on a stage at West Parliament Square in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Admission to the performances is free, but participants are encouraged to make PayPal donations.
The Samhuinn Fire Festival is marked by a procession through Old Town, as well as traditional drum, music, and dance performances. The highlight of the Festival, though, is the storytelling event in which the Cailleach, a representation of the Goddess, is unveiled and the Court of the Summer King is overthrown by the Winter Court.
If you’ve ever wondered why people dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating on Halloween, remember that it’s all because of Samhain. So if you’re longing for a different way to celebrate Halloween this year, you can fly to Ireland or Scotland or wherever it is celebrated on Halloween weekend for a taste of Samhain.