A short history of Samhain

halloween-2Every year in parts of the western world Hallowe’en is celebrated. Children dress up, and go trick or treating, while carved pumpkins are placed on doorsteps and porches. Many visit the graves of their families, while others tell ghost stories and hold fancy dress parties.

Hallowe’en or as it was originally known, Samhain’s eve is a Celtic word meaning Summer’s end. Samhain’s origins lie in Ireland, and Celtic Europe.

In pagan times this feast marked the start of the winter solstice: November 1st was the beginning of the new year in the pagan calendar. Because the Celts followed a lunar calendar, their feasts and festivals, including Samhain always began the night before.

In fact, so powerful was the culture of Samhain that the Catholic Church moved All Saints’ Day to November 1st from its original date of May 13th. Later on, in the 8th century Pope Gregory III added the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed or All Souls as it’s known to the liturgical calendar. This is why Catholics celebrate and call this period of three days (October 31st to November 2nd) Allhallowtide, a word that grew out of Alholowmesse, a middle English word which means All Saints’ Mass. In fact Hallowe’en itself is a christianisation of the words Samhain’s eve.

As part of the traditional Samhain festivities, foods such as apples, berries, and nuts were left out on the steps of people’s homes, and plates were left on the kitchen table for any potential visiting ancestral guests. As Samhain’s eve was considered to fall between old and new – A transitional period between the old and new year, it was believed the veil between the living and the dead became thinnest during the night, and that’s why the living wore masks and costumes – To protect themselves against the wandering spirits, as on the eve of Samhain it was believed many different beings could travel the earth besides the spirits of the departed; including fairies, goblins, elves, banshees, demons, and shape-shifters.

samhainThe celebratory activities included dancing around a large bonfire in which parts of the harvest was thrown, to give thanks to the gods for the good harvest, and the telling of ghost stories. The dances also told stories about the King of the Dead who visited during the feast of Samhain, among others relating to the festivities.

As time passed, and Christianity began to replace pagan beliefs, new traditions connected to the old began to spring up, including Trick or Treating, and jack-o-lanterns. Originally jack-o-lanterns were carved in turnips, but as more Irish people emigrated to United States, turnips were replaced with pumpkins. And now, nary a turnips is used to keep evil at bay, or help the spirits find their way home!

In early America, Hallowe’en was originally only celebrated in Maryland, but it began to become part of the American way of life when the Irish immigrants started moving into other parts of the country. These days Hallowe’en is a secular event, with only the simplest nod of acknowledgement to its long forgotten pagan and christianised roots.

Wishing everyone a happy Hallowe’en. 👻🍭🍬🍫☠️