Alternative Names for Samhain: – Allantide (Cornish), Nos Galan Gaeaf, (modern Welsh), All-Hallow’s Tide (“Alhalwyn-tyd,” Germanic), Halloween (secular American), Kala-Goanv (Breton), Samhiunn (Scottish Gaelic), Trinouxtion Samonii (Gaulish from the Coligny Calendar).
Celebrated on 31st October
What is Samhain?
Samhain (from Old Irish & its meaning is glossed as ‘summers end’) is a festival that marks the end of the agricultural harvest and the cattle being brought back down from the summer pastures. It is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November. This is around the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Samhain marks the end of the ‘light half of the year and the beginning of the ‘dark half’ of the year. An in-between time, these are special as they are neither one thing nor the other.
In Wales ‘Calan Gaeaf’ is the name of the first day of winter , observed on 1 November. The night before is Nos Galan (mutation) Gaeaf, an Ysbrydnos (a spirit night) when the ‘veil’ is at its thinnest allowing spirits to cross between worlds. Kindred festivals were held at the same time of year in other ‘Celtic’ lands. Samhain was marked in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, Kalan Gway (Cornwall) and Kalan Goañv (Brittany).Along with Imbolc, Beltain and Lughnasadh it makes up the four ‘Agricultural’ seasonal festivals.
The Moon at Samhain
There is a school of thought that suggests that Samhain would have been celebrated on the nearest full-moon (although no empirical proof). As the dates of full moons vary (the moons orbit does not tie in with our calendar) this can be either during October or early November. The ‘Hunter’s Moon’ as it is known is so-called as it is at this time of year when the animals traditionally hunted would be at their fattest. Hunters could use the light of the full moon to ensure their food supply over the coming winter months.
Samhain, the end of Summer and beginning of winter, is traditionally the time to take stock. Harvest is over and the crops are in, cattle are now brought back from summer pastures where they have been since Beltane. Animals to be slaughtered for the winter are now chosen (a custom still observed by many who keep livestock). The summer grass has gone, there is no more free foraging and it is also now, when the weather moves into the freeze that the meat will keep.
Bonfires were lit; a kind of sympathetic magic that mimicked the Sun driving out dark forces and destroying harmful influences, holding back the decay and darkness of winter. There were many rituals surrounding these bonfires (see Folk-Lore, Customs & Traditions below).Samhain is also the time when the ancestors were honoured. The belief that this is the night when the spirits of the dead could most easily mingle with the living was most fitting as it is also the time of the ‘dying’ in nature. Places would be set at the table for recently departed relatives to join in the celebratory feast.
Not only is Samhain the end of Summer and the beginning of winter it is also the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the dark half. As such Samhain is on a threshold – a liminal place; our ancestors knew that liminal places were special – a place on a boundary which is in neither side or both at the same time creates a gateway between the two. These liminal times also create a gateway between our world and the ‘Otherworld’ – a time when the spirits or Fae can easily cross and enter our world. Our ancestors believed that places that constituted a threshold were strong contenders for locations at which these gateways presented themselves; churchyards, stiles and crosssroads were just some of these and they would go out of their way to avoid them at liminal times.
With the strong emphasis on liminality at this time Samhain is a feast/festival of the dead – not a morbid event but a celebration remembering, honouring and showing respect.
Samhain Folk-Lore Customs and Traditions
As mentioned above bonfires played a large part in the celebrations down through the ages, they still do in some of the rural areas that remain Brythonic. Accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries suggest that the fires (as well as their smoke and ashes) were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers. The fire was traditionally a ‘Need Fire’ (one lit by friction) and with the fire ablaze, each family would then solemnly re-light its own hearth from the common flame, thus bonding the families of the village together.
- In Moray, boys asked for bonfire fuel from each house in the village. When the fire was lit, “one after another of the youths laid himself down on the ground as near to the fire as possible so as not to be burned, and in such a position as to let the smoke roll over him. The others ran through the smoke and jumped over him”. (Hutton, pp.365–368)
- Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta – In Wales legend has it that a fearsome spirit called Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta took the form of a tail-less black sow and roamed the countryside with a headless woman. Children would rush home early from school. Firelight illuminates the darkness allowing escape from the Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta.
- Divination has likely been a part of the festival since ancient times, and it has survived in some rural areas. At household festivities throughout the Brythonic regions there were many rituals intended to divine the future of those gathered, especially with regard to death and marriage, (Hutton p 380). Apples and nuts were often used in these rituals, Apples were peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of a future spouse’s name. Couples would roast nuts on the hearth and interpret their behaviour – if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in water, the shapes they made foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew.
- Mummers and guisers sometimes with faces painted black maybe to represent the dead or to disguise themselves from both the living and roaming spirits “was a part of Samhain from at least the 16th century and was recorded in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales. It involved people going from house to house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting songs or verses in exchange for food”, (Hutton pp 380-382) – Hutton writes: “When imitating malignant spirits it was a very short step from guising to playing pranks”. Playing pranks at Samhain is recorded in the Scottish Highlands as far back as 1736 and was also common in Ireland, which led to Samhain being nicknamed “Mischief Night” in some parts.
- Coelcerth – Families build a fire and place stones with their names on it. The person whose stone is missing the next morning would die within the year. (Nice one)
- Eiddiorwg Dalen – A few leaves of ground ivy is thought to give you the power to see hags. For prophetic dreams a boy should cut ten ivy leaves, throw away one and put the rest under his head before he sleeps. A girl should take a wild rose grown into a hoop, creep through it three times, cut it in silence, and go to bed with it under her pillow.
- Teiliwr – In Glamorgan tailors were associated with witchcraft. They supposedly possessed the power to ‘bewitch’ anybody if they wished.
- It was traditional in many areas for the bones of the slaughtered cattle to be thrown onto the fire which is where we get the modern word ‘bonfire’ from; Middle English – ‘Banefire’, a fire onto which bones were thrown.
Carving vegetables has been a common practice in many parts of the world for hundreds of years. At Samhain, in the Brythonic speaking areas, turnips were hollowed out to act as lanterns – very often being carved with grotesque faces; those who made them saying they were to ‘ward off evil spirits’.
In the 18thC they were known as a “Hoberdy’s Lantern” in Worcestershire, it was also common practice for ‘guisers’ to carry them to frighten people. The name was originally used to describe the strange flickering light phenonomon over bogs, also known as will-o’-the-wisp. They are of course a forerunner to todays American Halloween Pumpkins.
For more information about celebrating the festivals see the Sacred Celebrations page.