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Samhain - Happy New Year!
By Solange Ni Morain
Seems a bit odd this time of year, as we gather together costumes, carve
pumpkins, collect tinder for bonfires, and hang images of goblins, ghouls
and witches about our surroundings, doesn't it? Yet if you had lived in
Ireland many centuries ago, this would have been your New Year celebration!
The Celts considered time to be cyclical or circular rather than linear,
with eight 'stations' of the year marking the passing seasons. These important
dates were marked with specific rituals and customs, among them fire-festivals.
The two most important fire festivals were Beltane, on May 1st,
marking the beginning of summer, and Samhain, on Novermber 1st,
signifying the arrival of winter. Several lesser festivals marked the passage
of time in between these two calendrical polarities.
Like many autumn festivals around the world, Samhain has its origins
in the harvest season. To the Celts, an agricultural people, paying homage
to the cycles of the earth and the spirits they believed inhabited the land
was particularly important. With the harvest completed and the days shortening
into winter, this ritual marked the beginning of a 'still' time, when warfare,
crop cultivation, and the bustle of summer activity came to a halt. It was
logical to associate this transition with symbolic 'death' ' the death of
the land's fertility, the usual busy activity of the clan, and most importantly,
the 'death' of the sun. It is important to consider that in the context
of the Celt's belief in time as a cyclical entity, death was not an ending
to be feared; rather, it was the pathway to regeneration. Unlike many other
cultures, to the Celts the origin of life was to be found in darkness, the
moon, and night.
At this time of year, the crops would have been harvested and provisions
made for the long, dark winter months ahead. Once Samhain came, all fruit
still left upon the trees was considered taboo for humans, as it now belonged
to the spirit world. Animals not kept as breeding stock were slaughtered
as sacrifices and then made into food to sustain the clans through the dark
period of the year. It was a time for taking stock of the past year, honoring
the great cycle of life that sustained the race, and welcoming in the New
Year. Tara, the seat of Irish kingship, was the site of great celebrations,
markets, and fairs on Samhain.
On these significant days ' Beltane and in ' it was believed that the
forces of chaos reigned and the barriers between the spirit world and human
world were considerably thinned and navigable, allowing for intermingling
between the living and the dead. The Celts prepared for the return of the
dead, often setting out food and wine to greet the spirits that might come
They also thought this the most advantageous time to practice divination
of their own, since the world of the unseen was exceptionally more 'open'
to their communications. The Celts did not fear or abhor death the way the
modern world does, and so the presence of the dead was welcomed rather than
dreaded. However, along with the spirits of the ancestors, it was also thought
that mischievous or malevolent ghosts were present as well, so caution was
to be taken. It was for these forces that food and wine was also set out,
though the intent was placatory rather than hospitable. Bonfires were also
lit at this time to appease the spirits of the dead, make offerings and
sacrifices, and cast spells, giving rise to the modern Irish practice of
lighting large bonfires on Halloween night.
As the influence of Christianity came to Ireland and blended with Celtic
culture, familiar Samhain imagery and tradition blended with Christian influence
to create a hybrid holiday. Centuries later, Irish emigrants to the New
World brought many of these customs with them, creating the widely-known
secular holiday, Halloween, that we know so well!