Samhain is a word for a month in the Celtic calendar; the Samhain festivals marked the end of the summer season and end of the harvest. In Irish language, Samhain is the word for November and the Scottish Gaelic spelling is Samhainn or samhuinn meaning for the feast. As per the Gaulish testimony, Samhain was the principle festival of medieval Ireland, which was celebrated at the royal court of Tara with a great assembly.
Today, celebrating Samhain has survived in some traditions like the secular Halloween, Catholic All Soul’s Day. In the Celtic nations and Scottish Diasporas, Samhain remains as several folk practices and is one of the sabbat feasts of the Wiccan year wheel. The festival of Samhain celebrates the harvest and the dead.
Samhain Festivals and Folklore
Many festivals today carry the legacy of celebrating Samhainn with the harvest and the dead. The Scots and the Irish celebrate the File na Marbh, the “festival of the dead” on Samhain.
Samhain eve is one of the chief festivals of the Celtic calendar, which represents the final harvest and is considered to fall on or around the 31st of October. In Irish, this eve is known as Oche Shamhna and in Scots Gaelic as Oidhche Shamhna. Halloween in the Gaelic language of modern Scotland and Ireland is still known as “Oche/Oidhche Shamhna”. In some places it is a custom to set a place for the dead on the samhain feast and the tales of the ancestors are told.
Celebrating Samhain by the Neopagans is done in various forms. In some culture, dead are honored elaborately, some celebrates like the Ancient Celts or like the living Celtic cultures and some observe it as a holiday with rituals picked from different sources, Celtic tradition being one of them.
The date of the first frost, when the last of the harvest is in is the time when Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans celebrate Samhain. They base their celebration on rituals from the traditional Celtic culture and of the beliefs of old polytheistic Celts. They believe that Samhain is the time when the distance between the “spirit world” and the “human world” fades.
The modern day Wiccans observe Samhain as one of the eight annual holidays, the “sabbats” of the Wiccan wheel. It is a festival of darkness and death, which is balanced, by the spring festival of Beltane, the festival of life and fertility.
Folklore Of Samhain
There are numerous folklores revolving round the holy festival of Samhain. Many characters in Celtic Irish legend undertook their adventures at the Samhuinn night feast. One such Tale is if the Barrle of Mag Tuired, which rook place on Samhain. This tale tells the story of the battle between Dagda’s people and the Fomorians. The deities Morrigan and Dagda met before the battle and had sex. Thus Morrigan gives victory to Dagda’s people.
Is Samhain The Celtic New Year?
The Gaulish calendar divides the year into two halves. The “dark half” begins with the month of Samonios (the October/ November lination) and the “light half” begins with the month of Giamonios (the April/ May lunation). The Celtic New Year is considered to begin with the dark half, so the beginning of Samonios can be considered as the New Year’s Day. The New Year is celebrated during the “three nights of Samanios” when the fullmoon is nearest the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.
Samhain is literally “summer’s end”, the point of entrance into the dark phase of the year. Though there are debates among scholars regarding whether Samhain is the Celtic New Year or not, but the living Celtic cultures and contemporary Celtic calendars consider Samhain as the New Year.
The Samhain Celebrations
Samhain was a pre-Christian festival of an agricultural and cattle based economy. These holidays are the time to take stock of grain supplies and cattle.
Bonfire plays a large part in the festivities. The early villagers is said to shed the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. Then the villagers extinguished all other fires and lit their hearth with flames from the bonfire to strengthen the bond of the families of the village. Sometimes bonfires would be built side by side and people walked between the fires to purify themselves.
Divination with apple and nuts is a common folkloric practice used to determine ones spouse name or location of ones future home.
Thus celebrating Samhain, the ancient celebration of harvest and dead is still a time of strong bonding and rejoice.