|A PAGAN HOLIDAY CELEBRATION :
also known as: Halloween, ShadowFest, Martinmas, Old Hallowmas
SAMHAIN : (October 31st -Nov 1st) The Last Harvest. The Earth nods a sad farewell to the God. We know that he will once again be reborn of the Goddess and the cycle will continue. This is the time of reflection, the time to honor the Ancients who have gone on before us and the time of Seeing (divination). As we contemplate the Wheel of the Year, we come to recognize our own part in the eternal cycle of Life.
The Celtic peoples called the time between Samhain (pronounced SOW-in in Ireland, SOW-een in Wales, SAV-en in Scotland or even SAM-haine in non Gaelic speaking countries) and Brigids Day the period of little sun. Thus, Samhain is often named the Last Harvest or Summers End. Better known as Halloween.
While almost all Celtic based traditions recognize this Holiday as the end of the old year, some groups do not celebrate the coming of the new year until Yule. Some consider the time between Samhain and Yule as a time which does not even exist on the Earthly plane. The time which is no time was considered in the old days to be both very magical and very dangerous. So even today, we celebrate this Holiday with a mixture of joyous celebration and spine tingling reverence.
The Samhain Holiday begins at sundown on October 31st. The night tide was always a time to be wary of walking alone in the countryside. So much more on this night when the veils between the worlds of humans and spirits is at its thinnest. Traditional lore speaks of the dead returning to visit their kin and the doors to the Lands of the Sidhe (pronounced shee) or Faery (fairy) Realm being opened.
THE FEAST OF THE DEAD
(Fleadh nan Mairbh) is laid out by many to welcome these otherworldly visitors and gain their favor for the coming year. Many folks leave milk and cakes (Bannock Samhain) outside their door on Samhain Eve or set a place at their table for their ancestors who may want to join in the celebrations with their kin and family.
Some Witches use a chant at the beginning of the Feast to welcome their ancestors. One of these, as an example goes like this:
And so it is, we gather again,
The feast of our dead to begin.
Our Ancients, our Ancestors we invite, Come!
And follow the setting of the sun.
Whom do we call? We call them by name,
(Insert the name of an ancestor you wish to welcome.)
The Ancients have come! Here with us stand
Where ever the country, where ever the land
They leave us not, to travel alone;
Flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone!
Grandmothers, Grandfathers, Great be their Power!
Past ones and present-at this very hour!
Welcome within are the dead who are kin,
Feast here with us and rest here within
Our hearth is your hearth and welcome to thee;
Old tales to tell and new visions to see!
It is also customary to light a new candle for the new year. This ritual harkens back to the days when Samhain was one of only two days - the other being Beltaine - when it was considered correct to extinguish the hearth fire and then to re-light it. If your fire failed at any other time of the year, it was thought to be very bad luck indeed.
Upon the rekindling of the fire in the morning, this so-called blessing was often said :
We Call Upon The Sacred Three:
To Save... To Shield... To Surround
The Hearth... The House... The Household
This Night, Each Night, Every Night.!
Many Witches of the Old Ways, actually celebrate two Samhains or Halloweens. The Old date for Samhain occurs when the sun has reached 15 degrees Scorpio. (As a side note, the Catholic Church has borrowed this same day to celebrate the holiday of Martinmas. (This is a Christian feast observed in commemoration of the death and burial of Saint Martin of Tours. November 11 is the day on which this feast is observed.) So if you follow this way, you can always celebrate the party aspect with your friends on one date and the worship part with your kin on the other.
October 31st, commonly called Halloween, is associated with many customs, some of them mysterious, some light-hearted, some of them downright odd. Why do we bob for apples, carve pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns, and tell ghost stories on this night? Why do children go door-to-door asking for candy, dressed in fantastical costumes? How is Halloween connected to All Souls Day, celebrated by some Christian denominations on November 1st? What is the significance of this holiday for modern-day Witches?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF HALLOWE'EN
Halloween has its origins in the British Isles. While the modern tradition of trick or treat developed in the United States, it too is based on folk customs brought to this country with Irish immigrants after 1840. Since ancient times in Ireland, Scotland, and England, October 31st has been celebrated as a feast for the dead, and also the day that marks the new year. Mexico observes a Day of the Dead on this day, as do other world cultures.
For early Europeans, this time of the year marked the beginning of the cold, lean months to come; the flocks were brought in from the fields to live in sheds until spring. Some animals were slaughtered, and the meat preserved to provide food for winter. The last gathering of crops was known as Harvest Home, celebrated with fairs and festivals. In addition to its agriculture significance, the ancient Celts also saw Samhain as a very spiritual time. Because October 31st lies exactly between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, it is theorized that ancient peoples, with their reliance on astrology, thought it was a very potent time for magic and communion with spirits. The veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was said to be at its thinnest on this day; so the dead were invited to return to feast with their loved ones; welcomed in from the cold, much as the animals were brought inside. Ancient customs range from placing food out for dead ancestors, to performing rituals for communicating with those who had passed over.
Communion with the dead was thought to be the work of witches and sorcerers, although the common folk thought nothing of it. Because the rise of the Church led to growing suspicion of the pagan ways of country dwellers, Samhain also became associated with witches, black cats, bats (night creatures), ghosts and other spooky things... the stereotype of the old hag riding the broomstick is simply a caricature; fairy tales have exploited this image for centuries.
Divination of the future was also commonly practiced at this magically-potent time; since it was also the Celtic New Year, people focused on their desires for the coming year. Certain traditions, such as bobbing for apples, roasting nuts in the fire, and baking cakes which contained tokens of luck, are actually ancient methods of telling fortunes.
SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE JACK-O-LANTERNS?
Other old traditions have survived to this day; lanterns carved out of pumpkins and turnips were used to provide light on a night when huge bonfires were lit, and all households let their fires go out so they could be rekindled from this new fire; this was believed to be good luck for all households. The name Jack-O-Lantern means Jack of the Lantern, and comes from an old Irish tale. Jack was a man who could enter neither heaven nor hell and was condemned to wander through the night with only a candle in a turnip for light. Or so goes the legend...
But such folk names were commonly given to nature spirits, like the Jack in the Green, or to plants believed to possess magical properties, like John O Dreams, or Jack in the Pulpit. Irish fairy lore is full of such references. Since candles placed in hollowed-out pumpkins or turnips (commonly grown for food and abundant at this time of year) would produce flickering flames, especially on cold nights in October, this phenomenon may have led to the association of spirits with the lanterns; and this in turn may have led to the tradition of carving scary faces on them. It is an old legend that candle flames which flicker on Samhain night are being touched by the spirits of dead ancestors, or ghosts.
OKAY! WHAT ABOUT THE CANDY!
Trick or treat as it is practiced in the United States is a complex custom believed to derive from several Samhain traditions. Since Irish immigrants were predominantly Catholic, they were more likely to observe All Souls Day. But Irelands folk traditions die hard, and the old ways of Samhain were remembered. The old tradition of going door to door asking for donations of money or food for the New Years feast, was carried over to the United States from the British Isles. Hogmanay was celebrated January 1st in rural Scotland, and there are records of a trick or treat type of custom; curses would be invoked on those who did not give generously; while those who did give from their hearts were blessed and praised. Hence, the notion of trick or treat was born (although this greeting was not commonly used until the 1930s in the US). The wearing of costumes is an ancient practice; villagers would dress as ghosts, to escort the spirits of the dead to the outskirts of the town, at the end of the nights celebration.
By the 1920s, trick or treat became a way of letting off steam for those urban poor living in crowded conditions. Innocent acts of vandalism (soaping windows, etc.) gave way to violent, cruel acts. Organizations like the Boy Scouts tried to organize ways for this holiday to become safe and fun; they started the practice of encouraging good children to visit shops and homes asking for treats, so as to prevent criminal acts. These beggars nights became very popular and have evolved to what we know as Halloween today.
WHAT DO MODERN WITCHES DO AT HALLOWE'EN?
It is an important holiday for us. Witches are diverse, and practice a variety of traditions. Many of us use this time to practice forms of divination (such as tarot, runes (magic charms) or chants). Many witches also perform rituals to honor the dead; and may invite their deceased loved ones to visit for a time, if they choose. This is not a seance in the usual sense of the word; witches extend an invitation, rather than summoning the dead, and we believe the world of the dead is very close to this one. So on Samhain, and again on Beltane (May 1st), when the veil between the worlds is thin, we attempt to travel between those worlds. This is done through meditation, visualization, and astral projection. Because witches acknowledge human existence as part of a cycle of life, death and rebirth, Samhain is a time to reflect on our mortality, and to confront our fears of dying.
Some witches look on Samhain as a time to prepare for the long, dark months of winter, a time of introspection and drawing inward. They may bid goodbye to the summer with one last celebratory rite. They may have harvest feasts, with vegetables and fruits they have grown, or home-brewed cider or mead (fermented honey and water). They may give thanks for what they have, projecting for abundance through the winter. Still others may celebrate with costume parties, enjoying treats and good times with friends. There are as many ways of observing Samhain as there are witches in the world!
THE FIRE FESTIVALS
There were four Major High Days celebrated by the Paleopagan Druids throughout the Celtic territories: Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane and Lughnasadh (in the Irish spellings). Four additional High Days (Winter Solstice or Midwinter, Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice or Midsummer, and Fall Equinox), which are based on Germanic or other Indo-European cultures, are also celebrated in the Neopagan Druid calendar, along with others based on mainstream holidays. The most common practice for the calculation of Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane & Lughnasadh has been, for the last several centuries, to use the civil calendar days or eves of November 1st, February 1st, May 1st and August 1st, respectively.
These four major holy days are traditionally referred to as fire festivals because to the ancient Celts, as with all the Indo-European Paleopagans, fire was a physical symbol of divinity, holiness, truth, and beauty. Whether in Ireland or India, among the Germans or the Hittites, sacred fires were kindled on every important religious occasion. To this very day, among Eastern and Western Catholics, you cant have a satisfying ritual without a few candles being lit!
Samhain is the most important of the fire festivals, because it marks the Celtic New Year (a week later the Celts Indo-European cousins in India celebrate Divali, which is their New Years festival). Samhain was the original festival that became All Saints Day in the Christian calendar. Since the Celts, like many cultures, started every day at sunset of the night before, this became the evening of All Hallows (hallowed = holy = saint) which was eventually contracted into Hallow-een or the modern Halloween.
Among other things, Samhain is the beginning of the winter half of the year (the seasons of Geimredh and Earrach) and is known as the Day Between Years (the year, like the day, began with its dark half). The day before Samhain is the last day of the old year and the day after Samhain is the first day of the new year. Being between years, it is considered a very magical time, when the dead walk among the living and the veils between past, present and future may be lifted in prophecy and divination.
There is some evidence to indicate that three days were spent celebrating this festival. Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, speaking of both Paleopagan and Mesopagan Druids in England, had this to say about it in his Elements of the Druid Tradition :
Samhuinn, from 31 October to 2 November was a time of no-time. Celtic society, like all early societies, was highly structured and organized, everyone knew their place. But to allow that order to be psychologically comfortable, the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished, when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn, was such a time. Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbors doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Halloween.
But behind this apparent lunacy, lies a deeper meaning. The Druids knew that these three days had a special quality about them. The veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside on these nights, and for those who were prepared, journeys could be made in safety to the other side. The Druid rites, therefore, were concerned with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration rather than as sources of dread. The dark moon, the time when no moon can be seen in the sky, was the phase of the moon which ruled this time, because it represents a time in which our mortal sight needs to be obscured in order for us to see into the other worlds.
The dead are honored and feasted, not as the dead, but as the living spirits of loved ones and of guardians who hold the root-wisdom of the tribe. With the coming of Christianity, this festival was turned into Halloween (31 October), All Hallows [All Saints Day] (1 November), and [All Souls Day] (2 November). Here we can see most clearly the way in which Christianity built on the Pagan foundations it found rooted in these isles. Not only does the purpose of the festival match with the earlier one, but even the unusual length of the festival is the same.
The Christian Church was unable to get the people to stop celebrating this holiday, so they simply sprinkled a little holy water on it and gave it new names, as they did with other Paleopagan holidays and customs. So when Satanic Panic-ers come to your local school board and try to get Halloween removed from the public schools because its a Pagan holiday, they are perfectly correct. Of course, Valentines Day/Lupercalia, Easter/Eostre, and Christmas/Yule also have many Paleopagan elements associated with their dating and / or symbols. So if we decide to rid the public schools of all holidays that have Pagan aspects to them, there wont be many left for the kids (adults too!) to enjoy.
WHERE DOES THIS CUSTOM COME FROM?
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