Samhain - Celtic New Year


Author: Grace Carter
Last update: 09/10/2008


Celebrated by:



November 1st (hence, midnight on October 31st)

Next year will be:



More than 2000 years ago, before the Romans invaded the British Isles, the Celtic people practiced a mystical religion tied to cycles in nature. Samhain was the third and last of the year's harvest festivals, and signified the end of summer, and the beginning of the cold dark period that lasts until the winter solstice. The Celts believed in spirits, both good and evil, and it was thought that on this day, the boundary between the human and spirit realm became blurred. To cement their conquest, the Romans set to work quashing the old religion by superimposing their own holidays and festivals over the old ones. Later, in the 800s, Christianity arrived and attempted to finish the deed by establishing holidays on the same dates as the hybridized Celto-Roman fests, but with different names and meanings. Thus, under the guidance of the Catholic Church, Samhain became All Saint's (or All Hallow's) Day, and hence the night before became All Hallow's Eve, or, eventually… you got it… Hallowe'en. Although the majority of the Celts were well nigh extinct by that point, the survivors kept practicing their traditions, often in secret, which is why Paganism is still around today.

Values and traditions:

Pop quiz: It's one in the morning on November 1st, and you see someone coming down the street towards you, wearing a scary mask. The person gets out their house key, and enters their home. On the doorstep is a freaky-faced jack o'lantern. Is this person:

a) a non-Pagan celebrating Hallowe'en
b) a Pagan celebrating Samhain
c) neither a nor b
d) both a and b

It's bit of a trick question. Probably it's A, but it could also be D. Let's back up for a second, though.

Because Paganism was, for so long, an underground religion-one that not only lacked the support of any formal international structure, but one which other major religions wanted to obliterate-today's practitioners are a tough group to categorize simply. They fall into a wide array of subdivisions, some as broad as Wicca, some as small as a group of friends doing Samhain their own way. The traditions we'll discuss here could be practiced by any part of that web, but wouldn't necessarily be practiced by all of them.

On the eve of Samhain, the original Celts lit a massive bonfire to get rid of baggage from the old year and prepare for the new one-a practice common to New Year's celebrations the world over, like Incwala in Swaziland or Norouz in Iran. They'd wear costumes of animal heads and skins. Getting back to the question above, some of today's Pagans wear masks or carve jack o'lanterns to warn away evil spirits roaming the earth.

More likely, though, a Pagan would light a candle in their window, and leave an offering called Fleadh nan Mairbh or "feast of the dead" to welcome the otherworldly wanderers and curry their favor for the coming year.

The preponderance of black and orange at Samhain is no accident either. Black represents the cold, dark days of the coming winter, and orange represents the winter solstice and later, Yule, when the Pagan fire God will return from death, or sleep, depending on who you're talking to.

Bobbing for apples is an historic kind of divination still practiced by some Pagans. It was once believed that the first woman to bite the fruit would be the next to marry. Peeling an apple also signified longevity-the longer the peel, the longer the life of the peeler. Historically, divination was a great source of comfort to the Celts, who relied solely on nature for their fortune, and so it persists today. Most Pagans either practice their preferred form of divination or seek a reading from a trusted source.

Less specifically Hallowe'enish rituals include leaving out food for birds and animals-reverence for nature is at the core of all Paganism-or perhaps lighting a candle near a photo of a deceased ancestor, or setting a place for them at the table. After all, the spirits are wandering tonight. You never know who might turn up.

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