Samhain – The precursor to Halloween

The leaves are changing colour and the nights are drawing in, which means that Halloween is just around the corner! But did you know that Halloween isn’t the first festival to be celebrated on the eve of the 31st October? We’ll hand over to volunteer Emily to tell us more…

Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival which has been commemorated by some Pagans (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) since around the time Stonehenge was constructed. It’s celebrated between sunrise on 31st October until sunset on 1st November, and it’s thought that the holiday of ‘Halloween’, as we know it today, derives from this festival.

Madingley Bonfire, picture credit Emily Fleming

The start of darker days

Samhain, meaning ‘summer’s end’ is a time to celebrate the dead; it’s a time when the land of the living can most easily interact with the land of the dead. The festival marks the beginning of winter and the ‘darker half’ of the year, but it also heralds the start of the old Celtic new year. Samhain is traditionally a time for regeneration and reflection. Today, some Pagans still practice ways of marking the event, but how did our ancient ancestors do it?

Fire and ritual

Traditional rituals focused around the fire. Hearths in the family home were kept lit while the harvest was gathered, and left to die down and to eventually go out. The hearth was important as it was the heart of the home, it was a place where the family would gather, the source of warmth, and also, like today, where the cooking was done. If the hearth fire was put out by hand, it was believed it would anger the gods, and so it was left to dwindle – the dying fire perhaps symbolising the final passing moments of the year.

Harvesting, Eaton Socon

The fire was only relit after the harvest and the start of the old Celtic new year. The community, alongside Druid priests, would gather to create a sacred bonfire to honour the dead, using a wooden wheel to spark the fire. It was from this fire that a flame was taken back to each home to relight the hearth. The wheel is an important symbol in Pagan religion as it represents the sun and its associated qualities of daylight, warmth and hope. The Pagan year is also divided in a ‘wheel of the year’, marking out the annual cycle of solar festivals such as Samhain, Ostara (the Spring Equinox) and Litha (Summer Solstice).

Festivals and feasts

The Pagan wheel of life

Along with the ritual element, Samhain would also have been a time to celebrate. People from the community would have brought harvest food for a great feast, and some would even wear costumes made from animal skins or heads. The offering of cattle bones onto the bonfire would also have played a key part in proceedings, and in fact the name ‘bonfire’ derives from this ‘bone fire’.

Amidst all the festivities there was a darker side, however, and there could be a price to pay if you didn’t make an offering or take part in proceedings. The deities associated with the festival would be very cross indeed, and their punishment? It could be illness or even death. You really had to keep the gods onside or suffer as a result.

Samhain today

Samhain is still observed by some Pagans today, though these days the celebrations are a little more private. Feasting still plays an important part in observing the festival, along with private prayer and small ceremonies in the home. Apple-bobbing might form part of festivities, and small bonfires may be lit. Time is also spent outdoors appreciating nature, and altars to the ancestors are set up.

Remembrance of the dead remains the focus throughout. At its core, Samhain is a chance to reconnect with passed loved ones and celebrate their lives. Although the modern, more commercialised version of ‘Halloween’ now dominates the date today, it’s important for us to reflect on its spiritual origins, to pause, and offer a moment’s reverence.