The Origins of Halloween
Where did it all begin? Dressing up as monsters and ghosts, getting free candy, painting sugar skulls, and pumpkins, what is the meaning behind Halloween? Samhain, an old Irish Gaelic word (pronounced Sow-in) dates as far back as 2000 years and has been celebrated at the turning of the wheel when fall is officially over and winter has begun. This festival marking an astronomical event and the end of harvest season, was especially important to the Northern folk as a day to honor the symbolic death of the God (Sun) and the coming winter, Crone Goddess (Moon). Samhain has Celtic pagan origins and one of the four Gaelic Season festivals including Imbolc, Lughnasa and Beltane and therefore coming together of the communities in feast and celebration was observed.
The Pagan New Year
October 31st is the Celtic Pagan new year and November 1st considered the first day of the new year. Bonfires were lit on this night to cleanse and burn away the old year, bringing in the new one with great light and cheer. Livestock meant to support families through the winter were “sacrificed” to the ancestors and prepared for curing. Animal heads and skins would be worn at the bonfires and stories were told by the priests and elders. Families would take torches home to light their hearth fires from the sacred Samhain bonfires. Food would be set outside their door to appease the malevolent and roaming spirits and prevent them from entering their households.
The Living and the Dead
It is believed that the veil between our world and the “other side” is thin on this night and we are able to communicate with and even be visited by our deceased, ancestors and even mythological beings like fairies, elves, and demons. Altars were created for household friends and family who had passed on and many offerings were made. Deceased family members are believed to revisit the home and great feasts were created in honor of them. Places would be set at the table for these beloved deceased and plates of food served to these invisible visitors. Cakes, treats, alcoholic beverages were all prepared with great love and served up as offerings on this night.
The Samhain Altar
The largest focus of all Samhain rites involved the family or hearth altar. Special altars for our beloved dead were erected and typically would be kept and tended to through the end of October and until Nov. 1st or 2nd. Images of the ancestors, personal belongings including jewelry, clothing, tools, eyeglasses, even hairbrushes were placed lovingly on the altar. Daily offerings were made for their peace, guidance and protection. Nuts, seeds, breads, fruits, especially apples were all placed on the altar for their deceased family and friends. Candles would be made at Imbolg and burned at Samhain to honor their spirits. Visits to cemeteries were also typical at this time and families would bring cakes and flowers to leave at the tombs.
So Why Costumes?
There is an old practice among the Celts called “Mumming” or “Guising” similar to the Yule rights of going home to home singing songs (Caroling), pagan folks would dress up in some sort of costume or disguise and go door to door reciting songs in exchange for food. This tradition was the practice of honoring the dead of all families, offering nourishment to each other, especially those in greater need, while disguising oneself from the evil spirits which were said to be able to slip through to our world at this auspicious time.
Divination and Samhain
The veil is thin, let us see in! Samhain is a time when we can communicate with the dead and the land of the Fey or the Fairie folk and so was considered the best time of year for divination. Divination is the art of spying into the spirit life of individuals to discern good and bad omens, events and tidings which may affect the diviner or her subject. Druidic Priests and Celtic Witches were said to have greater visions at this time and even had the ability to glean future events. Whether rolling stones and bones, carving staves, scrying in the fire, spying with nuts, many forms of divination have evolved over the years but one thing is certainly still true to this day, if you are pagan, you are engaging in some sort of divination on Samhain.
Kim Anderberg, for Kheops International
The Wheel of the Year, by Pauline Camponelli
The Grandmother of Time, Zsuzsanna E. Budapest
Samhain, by Diana Rajchel