TL;DR- Depending on who you ask, Samhain is either the first or final Sabbat celebrated on the Wheel of the Year. It is a holiday of speaking with the ancestors and warding off malevolent energies all while doing protective workings for the cold, dark winter months. It has been celebrated for generations in the British Isles, and today, around the world, people enjoy its traditions. This article will discuss Samhain, the history of Samhain, how it was celebrated, symbols of the Season, and how to celebrate Samhain.
Jack O Lanterns, fires in the night, and costumed trick or treaters characterize “the most wonderful time of the year”, Halloween. Some think of the day as a fun time to gather with friends dressed to the nines in clever costumes, and to pass candy to happy children who fill the night streets with the sounds of their laughter. However, the holiday has a deeper meaning and a rich history not everybody is aware of. To ancient people in parts of the British Isles, it was seen as one of the most sacred and terrifying holidays of the year called Samhain and one that was revered, prepared for, and thoroughly enjoyed. What is Samhain and what is its history? How has it been celebrated, and what are symbols of the holiday? How can we celebrate it today, as modern people, and enjoy the blessings it brings?
What is Samhain?
Samhain is a holiday that has been celebrated by Gaelic people and modern Neo Pagans and that has been around since at least as early as the first century BCE. It is one of four major holidays celebrated in ancient times with Imbolc on February 1, Beltane on May 1, and Lughnasadh on August 1 being the other three. Samhain falls between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice and celebrates the final harvest, the beginning of winter, and the start of the dark months of the year. It is believed the veil that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead thins, and spirits more easily pass into the world of men. While it is believed by many that time is a created thing, the seasons are natural, and the bright blessings of those seasons are celebrated by people. Samhain was a time to prepare the people and the livestock for the months at winter grounds, and sometimes completely indoors, and to do protective magic and prayers to keep away malevolent energies that brought disease and death.
Meanings of death are varied. On one hand, Samhain can be a time for intuitive communication with the ancestors, but it is also a time to do psychic energy work to ward off malevolent spirits that would steal living people away. Some years, the festivities lasted for a week, and others, it was just a day. Bonfires were blessed and burned at sacred places, and fires in the homes were extinguished and relit with a flame from the great fire. At some times, lawmakers and royals met and created laws and there was great feasting, drinking, and contests. The last of the harvest was completed by then in order to avoid working in freezing weather and the last of the livestock used for meat would be butchered and prepared. Wearing costumes to confuse spirits was done as a protective measure, and that evolved into costuming during revelry and going from house to house and singing for food and drink. The history of the holiday was both as something sacred, and also for fun, and it goes back thousands of years.
The History of Samhain
Attested to in the ancient French Celtic Coligny Calendar, Samhain is also written about in Irish lore as a time of year where kings and heroes gathered. The Mound of Hostages at The Hill of Tara is a passage tomb, and the sunrise of Samhain is aligned to where it illuminates the chamber where hundreds of people were buried. The Imbolc sunrise on February 1 also illuminates the chamber there. It is written that Samhain gatherings occurred at Tara which was a center of ancient sacred Irish royalty, and kings would be chosen there. The Hill of Ward is nearby, and sacred fires were lit at Samhain there. It was said the Samhain celebrations there were as big as the huge Lughnasadh gatherings held in honor of the goddess Tailtiu at Lughnasadh in August.
Some writings say it happened annually, but others said every third year, royalty and judges that were called ollamhs met to renew laws, set new ones, and feast at a gathering called a feis at Samhain and it was an enormous festival people came from near and far to attend. A mighty druidess some venerate as a goddess today named Tlachtga was honored, and it is believed ancient people celebrated the new year at Samhain. Dancing candle flames or flames from a stick would be carried home by attendees at the feis to light the flame in their home, thus uniting them as a community, warmed by a single fire, and to bless them with the fire the Priests had blessed at the gathering.
It is believed that the festivals for Samhain started once the harvest was complete, and the people would help the priests light the bonfire from a wheel, which represented the sun. Animal sacrifice to the gods would be made, and it is also said that attendance at the Samhain gathering was expected of everybody. Not attending could be punished by the gods, and the people also presented themselves to their leaders there. It has been said that up to six days of heavy feasting and heavy drinking of alcohol was done at times, and over time, the celebrations evolved from being huge festivals, to smaller ones, and some people even had their own celebrations at home on their own farms. Today, some townships in Great Britain have Samhain, like the one called the Puca Festival held in Ireland. You can find information here: Home: Púca Festival (pucafestival.com)
How it was Celebrated
In ancient times, many festivities were held, and in more modern times, those traditions are continued. Beyond a grand festival and official gathering, the practice of venerating the dead while deterring malevolent spirits were a big part of that, and individual practices at home were as well. Samhain was preserved when people changed from Paganism to Christianity in a holiday known as Halloween, and some churches have an All-Saint’s Day.
The Old Ways
Oweynagat, or the Cave of Cats is a chamber attached to a cavern where the triple goddess, the Morrigan and slews of spirits are said to exit the entrance to enter the land of the living on Samhain. It was dug out and lined with slabs of rock and is believed to be not only the portal where the Morrigan enters earth, but it is also called the “gates of hell” where all the dead and spirits can enter and exit. The cave is part of a larger complex of historic monuments, and there are other passageways elsewhere, none of which are supposedly as well done as this one. A video was made of what it looks like inside and that can be viewed here: (34) Oweynagat, cave of the cats, Rathcroghan.A journey into mother earth. - YouTube
Some would go out of their way to be protected from this procession of souls, as none of them were seen as a divine messenger, a spirit guide, or some other benevolent spirit, including staying indoors at night, and if people did go out at night, certain charms would be used to protect against the spirits. It was believed these spirits would kidnap the souls of the living, carrying them back to their homes, and one meaning of “worlds” was that their world was kept separate from the world of human beings. People believed they would be taken away and would never be able to return home again. Far from developing detachment for one’s own ancestors, protection from frightening beings was sought.
Clothing could be turned inside out to ward the spirits off, and a piece of iron could be carried. Later, Christians believed things like crucifixes or holy water would keep them safe, and then there was always wearing costumes. These were worn to convince the spirits the humans were spirits as well, and it was believed the spirits had no interest in carrying away other spirits! Offerings of food would be left for the spirits and the Sidhe, or ancestral descendants of ancient gods, to appease them so they would not harm people. Hollowed out turnips with faces carved on them would have a candle placed inside to ward off spirits, and that was replaced by pumpkins in modern times.
Blessing of livestock was very important at Samhain. They were taken from the higher pastures they were kept in for the warm months to the pastures and buildings in a lower area, sometimes a valley where they were more protected from the cold. It was believed that in the cold, dark months, malevolent spirits attached themselves to the living, and prayers were done to try and keep these spirits away. Feasts from the final harvest foods were done after the harvest was completed and if people were at a community gathering, they would enjoy fellowship with people they had not seen in a while. Sometimes, people from faraway from one another came together only for these large gatherings, and some would bid one another farewell until the next big holiday.
Bonfires would be lit to emulate the power of the sun, which had been waning since the Autumnal Equinox, and these fires were used for both purification of malevolent spirits and energies, and to bless the people and animals. These blessed fires were used by carrying a burning candle flame lit from them to light the fires in the homes because it was believed the holiness in them would keep the people of the households safe through the winter. It also united the people under one sacred flame, and the fires warded off bad spirits and malevolent magics. Lighting a candle for someone who had passed away on the home altar, or at the home in general was done in remembrance of them and setting a place for them at the table and filling it to “share” a meal with them was done as well.
All Souls Day
In response to the Pagan traditions, new Christian churches established a Christian holy holiday that preserved some of the Pagan traditions and meaning but reworked them to become a Christian high day. The holiday sometimes lasts for three days and honors the saints and the spirits of the dead who are believed to have not yet reached heaven. The celebration had been done in Springtime until the time of Pope Gregory, and he established the practice at the time of Samhain. It is said that perhaps an archbishop in Charlemagne’s court introduced the holiday on November 1 to the Frankish people as well.
It was a large church celebration, and it was deemed wise to do so in colder months because pilgrims in warmer months overwhelmed the churches at times. To commemorate the dead at the time when the earth was “dying back” was also seen as proper and preserving generations of tradition of honoring the dead at this time of year was both respectful of the people’s practices, and a good way to make them comfortable transferring these practices into the new religion. By the 1300’s, it was considered an obligation to attend the All-Souls services, and there was ringing of church bells for souls in a place called Purgatory, which was believed to be a place souls went while they were becoming pure enough to get into heaven.
Giving and eating of soul cakes became common practice, with those accepting the cakes promising to pray for souls, and any soul cakes that were left over would be given to the hungry and poor. Instead of using candle lit turnips to ward the dead off, candles were burned to guide lost souls home, and people believed angry souls could return for vengeance before going to heaven, so the old Pagan practice of wearing costumes was reused so the dead would not be able to recognize the living person they were angry with. Meals were left out for the dead before the living went to church, and milk was poured into the graves of the dead as offerings. Pageants and plays to dramatize the lives of some of the saints were done and some parishes to this day have candlelight processions into graveyards and cemeteries, with some family members keeping all night vigils.
Sometime later, all of this developed into more revelry and fun than the sacred observances and practices to protect and bless the people and animals and it became known as Halloween. Some bits and pieces from sacred Pagan and holy Christian traditions remain, but it is often done in the spirit of good fun, and many modern celebrants don’t know about the ancient roots of the holiday.
Halloween has become a huge commercial success with Halloween being the most successful holiday financially in America, second only to Christmas. In 2021, it was reported that people in the United States spent over ten billion dollars on Halloween collectively and that over one hundred fifty million Americans celebrate Halloween annually. People don’t just take their kids trick or treating for candy, they decorate their homes and yards, and some even send Halloween greeting cards. Some adults have costume or masquerade parties, one of which is called Highball Halloween in Columbus, Ohio. More than just a costume party, there are prizes for costumes, kids’ events, food trucks and vendors as well as music, dancing, and even a pet costume contest. As many as thirty thousand people attended the two-day festival in 2022. You can read about it here: HighBall – You Are What You Wear (highballcolumbus.org)
Games for Halloween have been played for generations. Bobbing for apples started in the British Isles and is still done today where apples are floated in a bowl or bucket of water, and each participant tries to use their teeth to retrieve an apple. This was done for divination, and the first one to retrieve an apple with their teeth was said to be the next one to get married. An apple could also be peeled and the shape of the letter the peel took when thrown on the ground was believed to reveal the first initial of the name of the person you would marry. Names of single people would also be carved into apples when there was bobbing for apples, and some believed the apple you got had the name on it of the one you would marry. While Halloween is considered a season of great fun, it should be noted that not everybody treats the day as only a day of fun, however. Some people light candles on graves and still do the all-night vigils at the family graves.
Symbols of the Season
Besides turnips and pumpkins to make lanterns to ward off the dead, costuming, reveling, feasting, and prayers for the dead, there are some widely recognized symbols of Samhain, All Soul’s Days, and Halloween. Treats, tricks, and lights in the night are some of the most famous ones.
What holiday would be complete without delicious foods to eat? Besides apples, candy, food offerings for the dead, and soul cakes, the bounty of the harvest is a large part of these celebrations. What was eaten would vary by household as well as what time in history the celebration took place. In ancient Ireland, much beer, wine, or ale would have been drunk, and freshly butchered meat would be part of the celebrations. At Balmoral, Queen Victoria had a grand bonfire and huge celebration and served “refreshments”, burned an effigy witch, and dancing and bagpiping was enjoyed as this 1871 Morning Post article states:
“Dancing was begun with great vigour round the bonfire to the strains of Mr. Ross’s bagpipes, and refreshments were served to all and sundry by Mr. Collins, sergeant-footman. The demonstration culminated in a vehicle containing a well got-up effigy of the Halloween witch being drawn to the fire by a band of sturdy Highlanders. The “witch” had a number of boys for a guard of honour, headed by the piper, and in the rear came Mr. Cowley, her Majesty’s jager, whose workmanship the effigy was. The boys, who each carried a blazing torch, set up a ringing cheer, and at a given signal Mr. Cowley and a ghillie pitched the effigy into the flames amid tremendous cheering, the royal party from the window having a good view of the burning of the “wrinkled hag o’ wicked fame.” The tire was kept up for a long time with fresh fuel, and when all had danced till “they could almost dance no longer,” the health of her Majesty was proposed by Mr. Cowley, and responded to with the utmost enthusiasm, accompanied by three times three rounds of vociferous cheering. Later on in the evening the servants and others about the Castle enjoyed a dance in the ghillie hall. The ball broke up at an early hour on Wednesday morning.” To read more from this see here: Halloween in the 1800s in America and Great Britain - Geri Walton
Playing pranks became part of Halloween, and the saying “Trick or Treat” that children harmlessly say today was not always so harmless in times past. People played pranks, pretending that mischievous spirits did it. In the 1800’s in West Texas, a popular prank was stealing people’s gates and moving outhouses a few inches off the latrine hole or completely relocating them was popular too. Soaping people’s windows or toilet papering their yards as well as taking down flags and stringing long underwear pants up them instead was popular as well.
Treats were given to adults and children going door to door to ensure they did not cause trouble for the household. Egging the house if they refused a treat, or damaging things in the yard could be done, but most of the time, the “threat” of a trick is an idle threat, and those who play pranks do so for their own personal enjoyment.
Firelight illuminates the night and has been used for thousands of years. Although most have electricity today, fire or candlelight is still a big part of Samhain, Halloween, and All Souls celebrations. Torchlight processions to cemeteries, into festivals, or large gatherings have been done to guide the spirits of the dead home to their loved ones, or to guide them to heaven. White paper bags with a single tealight candle in them line streets for Halloween trick or treating nights and that single candle in the pumpkin is still done although few believe malevolent spirits need to be warded off. There is just something magical about fires and candles illuminating the darkness of Halloween night, as if today’s celebrants instinctively know the light guides the spirits and protects the living.
How to Celebrate Samhain
Not everybody is a modern Pagan who wants to recreate pre-Christian Samhain traditions. Likewise, not everybody is a Christian celebrating all Souls Days, and not everybody wants to go to parties, or participate in trick or treating. There are still plenty of ways to celebrate the holiday. You can contact psychic readers, an intuitive medium, or if you are very intuitive, you can communicate with the dead yourself. You can have a feast on your own terms with the foods you love, and you can do divination.
Communicating with the Dead
When you meet your soulmate for the first time, it can feel like you are destined to be together forever, but when they die, you can feel lost. “Will I find my soulmate who passed away on Samhain?” Just what are the chances of meeting your soulmate through spirit communication after they pass away? The chances are very good, and there are plenty of ways to find your soulmate who has passed away, and Samhain is a great time to do that. The simplest way to contact them is to sit quietly with a picture of them and something that belonged to them if you have it so that you can use the energy they left behind. Likewise, a gift they gave you works to help to establish an energy connection with their soul.
Then, when you find your soulmate’s spirit, talk to them just like you always did when they were alive. Your love for one another will not have changed, the only thing that will have changed is they don’t have a body anymore. Just remember to be patient when contacting them and awaiting their response. It can be frightening if they don’t respond immediately but remember that souls go places other than by our side. It is entirely possible that your soulmate has already reincarnated and are busy living a new life. In that case, sometimes, you can’t establish direct communication, but you can feel their love. To read about contacting the dead, see here: Contacting Dead Loved Ones
Keep in mind that Samhain or Halloween games designed to contact the dead for fun are not a good idea. In mainstream movies, the storyline sometimes includes bored people calling up “whatever spirit can hear us” and demanding the spirit show themselves, which leads to wonderful horror scenarios. In reality, sure, you can call up a strange spirit, and you are not likely to meet your doom at their hands like characters in the movies do. Yet, it’s still extremely disrespectful to intrude into a spirit’s life like that. Calling your own dead to spend time with them, on the other hand, is the perfect way to celebrate Samhain when the dead walk among the living. You don’t have to be a medium, spirit talker, or know how to professionally be a medium for spirit communication to speak with your dead. You can trust your connection with them to get you in contact with one another.
Not everybody wants to feast on candy at Halloween, and not everybody eats the foods that are symbolic of the harvest. If you want to create your own feast for Samhain, the best way to do that is to consider what you and your loved ones love to eat and serve that. Including your departed loved ones in that meal is another wonderful way to celebrate the holiday, and the way to do that is simple. Set a place at the table for each loved one who has passed away, using the same table setting you used for your living guests. Light a candle in front of each of the place settings for the dead and place a photo of them and either a belonging of theirs or something that represents them. Then, you can even place a gift for them at their place setting. Then have each living attendee take turns fixing a plate for their departed loved one and talk about them. Once the dead have been served, the living can join in the meal. You may love this so much, you do it every year!
What’s intuitive about Samhain? One of the other psychic phenomena that occurs at Samhain time is that divination is easier. Some psychics don’t especially need it to be any particular time of year for their gifts to be powerful, but other people who are still developing their psychic abilities can benefit from the extra powerful spiritual and mystical energies. Perhaps it’s because the dead join the living, and perhaps the psychic energy is stronger all on its own, but one thing is for certain, practicing divination for Samhain is an old tradition that you can make your own. While you can certainly use the game of bobbing for apples for love divination, you don’t have to. Simply gather your psychic friends and their personal divination tools together and exchange readings and enjoy the magic and fellowship of the holiday with the people who you love.
No matter how you celebrate Samhain, may the blessings of the holiday be yours. May your final harvest of the year be abundant and may your gatherings be joyous. May the voices of your ancestors speak clearly to you. May the beginning of the Winter months envelop you in rest, contemplation, and peace. So be it.
About the Author: Lady Saoirse has studied magic and lore for most of her life but started walking her own Magical Path after being spiritually reborn in the desert. Today she is a High Priestess for The Temple of the Goddess, she is a psychic advisor and spiritual counselor, she shares her gifts as a Psychic and Content Writer for Spiritual Blossom, and she is an admin and writes for Pagan Pages emag.