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Halloween (Samhain) the End of Summer

Samhain October 31st commonly known as Halloween is associated with many customs, some of them very clandestine, some light-hearted and some positively peculiar. Why do we Bob for apples, carve pumpkins into Jack-o-lanterns and tell ghost stories on this night? Why do children go door-to-door saying ‘trick or treat’ and asking for candy, wearing fancy dress costumes?

How is Halloween connected to All Souls Day and All Saints Eve celebrated by some Christian denominations on November 1st? And what is the significance of this festival for modern day witches?

Samhain, meaning summer’s end, known in the modern world as Halloween, is the beginning of the Celtic year and a time for welcoming home family ghosts. It incorporates the Christian ‘Days of the Dead,’ ‘All souls Day’ and ‘All Saints Day.’ This is a major date in the witch’s calendar and the most important ‘Fire Festival’ of Ancient times. Samhain and Brigid’s Day ‘the period of little sun’. Thus Samhain is often named the ‘Last Harvest’ or ‘Summers End’. The Samhain holiday begins at sundown on October 31st.

In addition to it’s agriculture significance, the ancient Celts also saw Samhain as a very spiritual time. Because October 31 lies exactly between the Autumnal Equinox and the winter Solstice, it is theorized that ancient peoples, with their reliance on astrology, thought it was a very potent time for magic and communion with the spirits the ‘veil’ ‘between the worlds’ of the living and the dead was said to be at its thinnest on this day; so the dead were invited to return to feast with their loved ones, welcomed in from the cold much as the animals were brought inside at the end of summer.

Ancient customs range from placing food out for feed ancestors, to performing rituals for Communion with those who passed over.

All Saints Eve became All Hallows Eve and this festival was intended to give respite and peace to the souls of the deceased. Bonfires were lit and encircled by a trench, which was said to represent the sun. It is believed that the souls of the dead can come back to visit their homes one last time and warm themselves on the flames of the fires. But many traditions exist that ascribe this ceremony and this time to the devil. It was told that the souls of those not at peace were released for this night to revisit their homes.

Tales and superstitions abound, many of them connected with foretelling the future. For instance, it you sit at a crossroads while a church clock strikes midnight, you will hear, called out loud, the names of congregation who will die in the coming year. Another popular practice was called ‘the oracle of nuts’. This involved placing nuts, and giving them the names of ones lover, in red-hot coals. If the nut jumped then this lover would be unfaithful, if the nut burnt and blazed then this was a sign that the man named will be true in his love for you. Another superstition tells that if you hear footsteps behind you on All Hallows Eve then you must avoid turning around at all costs, as it is death that is following you. Children born on this night are said to have second sight and to lead a charmed a protected life.

Samhain is one of the most popular of the witches holidays it is considered to be the first of the new year, since the Celts viewed time as circular rather than linear, this night that is at once the end of the year and the beginning and was considered to be ‘outside’ of time. For this reason, Samhain is a holiday of divination and a time of the dead. A night of contradiction, where life and death, opposites but part of the same thing, were celebrated side by side.

The most well known aspect of Samhain is its role as the feast of the Dead. It is a night to honour the ancestors, to celebrate their lives, and to toast their memories. It is an evening for families to gather and hear tales and legends of Great Grandfathers and stories of the kings, fairies and ghosts. In Celtic times, at the festival of Samhain, the beginning of the Celtic New Year, ghosts were believed to return shivering from the fields on All Hallows Eve, Oct 31st, seeking food and shelter in their former homes. The hearth was the central place of the home and on spiritual levels the meeting place for the upper and lower words, living and deceased.

It was considered polite to set places at the table for those recently departed and to leave food for them and for wondering souls. Lights should be placed in windows and along roads to help guide the spirits out for the night.

This was the beginning of the ever-popular Jack-o-lantern. Lights were placed in gourds so that the wind would not extinguish them and left as guides and as wards to protect the household from any vindictive souls who may have tracked them down.

At Samhain, the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, which is why the dead can cross over on this eve. It also means that it is easier to see into the future. It is a night to cast runes, deal cards and for scrying. It is also a night to make decisions and cast spells. The Celts have a tradition that is the root of the modern New Years Resolution. The tradition states that on this day, one should reflect on the negatives in ones life and perform a ritual asking the crone to help in dissipating them.

There are several forms of divination that are particular to this Halloween eve. The most entertaining were popular amongst young girls and dealt with finding ones future husband. One of the most popular of these is to gather a group of hazel nuts together. On the shells, you mark symbols representing people that you know. The first nut to crack was supposed to have the symbol assigned to your true love. Of course, this can be modified for use with any other questions.

Apples are a very popular autumn food and it would be unthinkable not to involve them in this holiday. It was said that if one cut an apple in halves (long wise so that the star in middle becomes visible) by candle light and ate it in front of ones own image, behind one shoulder will appear the face of the one who loves you most. Another tradition states that if one peels an apple so the peel comes off as one long strand and throw it over the shoulder, it will fall in the shape of the first letter of your true loves name. A somewhat less pleasant method claims that a snail placed in the ashes of the fire would draw the initial of ones true love.

The nighttimes were always a time to be wary of walking alone in the countryside. This was all the more true on the night when the veils between the worlds of humans and spirits was at it’s thinnest. Traditional lore speaks of the dead returning to visit their kin and the doors of the lands of the Sidhe or Faery Realm being opened.

In Ireland ‘The Feast of the Dead’ (‘Fleadh nan Mairbh’) is laid out by many to welcome these otherworldly visitors and gain their favour for the coming year. Many folks leave milk and cakes (‘Bannock Samhain’) outside their door on Samhain Eve or set a place at their table for their ancestors who may want to join in the celebration with their kin and family

Mexico and parts of Latin America observe the ‘Day of the Dead’ festival ‘Dia de los muertos’ at the beginning of November each year, when pictures would be left out with gifts left for the dead. Whole families would go to the burial grounds and have a picnic, and a special altar would be set up with flowers, photographs and food and drink. Such celebrations can be traced back as far as the days of ancient Egypt when departed souls were honoured during the great festival of Osiris.

For early Europeans, this time of year marked the beginning of the cold, lean months to come; the flocks were brought in from the field to live in sheds until spring. Sometimes livestock was led between two fires to purify them. Some animals were slaughtered, and the meat preserved to provide food for the winter. The last gathering of crops was known as ‘Harvest Home,’ cerebrated with fairs and festivals.

Communion with the dead was thought to be the work of witches and sorcerers, although the common folk thought nothing of it. Because the rise of the church led to growing suspicion of the pagan ways of country dwellers, Samhain also became associated with witches, black cats (‘familiars’ or animal friends), bats) night creatures), ghosts and other ‘spooky’ things, the stereotype of the old hag riding her broomstick is simply a caricature, fairy tales have exploited this image for centuries.

Divination of the future was also commonly practised at this magically potent time since it was also the Celtic New Year, people focused on their desires for the coming year. Certain traditions, such as bobbing for apples, roasting nuts in the fire and baking cakes with contained tokens of luck, are actually ancient methods of telling fortunes.

Other old traditions have survived to this day; lanterns carved out of pumpkins and turnips were use to provide light on a night when huge bonfires were lit, and all households let their fires go out so they could be rekindled from this new fire; this was believed to be good luck for all households. The ‘Jack-O-Lantern’ meant ‘Jack of the lantern’, and comes from an old Irish tale. Jack was a man who could enter neither heaven nor hell and was condemned to wander though the night with only a candle in a turnip for light. But such folk names were commonly given to nature spirits, like the ‘Jack in the Green’, or to plants believed to possess magical properties, like ‘John O’Dreams, or ‘Jack in the pulpit’. Irish fairy lore is full of such references. Since candles placed in hollowed our pumpkins or turnips (common and abundant food at this time of year) would produce flickering flames, especially on cold nights in October. This phenomenon may have led to the association of spirits with the lanterns, and this in turn may have led to the tradition of carving scary faces or them. It is an old legend that the spirits of dead ancestor, or ghosts is touching candle flames with flicker on Samhain night.

‘Trick or treat’ as it is practiced in the U.S. is a complex custom believed to derive from several Samhain traditions. Since Irish immigrants to America were predominantly catholic, they were more likely to observe All Souls day. But Irelands folk traditions die hard, and the old ways of Samhain were remembered. The tradition of going door to door asking for donations of money or food for the New Years Eve Feast, was also carried over to the U. S.A. from the British Isles, hogmanay as celebrated on January 1st in rural Scotland, and there are records of a ‘trick or treat’ type of custom; curses would be invoked on those who did not give generously, while those who did give from their hearts were blessed and praised. Hence, the notion of ‘trick or treat’ was born.

The wearing of costumes and disguises is an ancient practice taken from religious festivals and carnivals to conceal oneself from malign spirits at the end of the night’s celebration.

By the 1920’s trick or treat’ became a way of letting off steam for those urban poor living in crowded conditions. Innocent acts of vandalism (soaping windows, etc.) gave way to cruel and violent acts. Organizations like the Boy Scouts tried to organize ways for this holiday to become safe and fun; they started the practice of encouraging good children to visit shops and homes asking for treats, so as to prevent criminal act. These ‘beggars nights’ became very popular and have evolved to what we know as Halloween today.

Halloween is a very important holiday for today’s witch, but they practise a variety of traditions. Many use this time to practice forms of divination) such as tarot or casting the runes,) Many witches also perform rituals to honour the dead; and may invite their deceased loved ones to visit for a time, if they choose. This is not a ‘séance’ in the usual sense of the word; Witches extend an invitation rather than summoning the dead, and they believe the world of the dead is very close to this one.

So at Samhain and again at Beltane, (May 1st), when the veil between the worlds is thin, one can attempt to travel between the worlds. This is done through mediation, visualization, and astral projection. Because witches will acknowledge human existence as part of a cycle of life, dead and rebirth. Samhain is a time to reflect on our mortality, and to confront our fears of dieing.

Some witches look on Samhain as a time to prepare for the long, dark months of winter, a time of introspection and drawing inward. They may bid goodbye to the summer with one last celebratory rite. They may have harvest feasts, with vegetables and fruits they have grown, or home brewed cider or mead. They may give thanks for what they have, projecting for abundance through the winter. Still other may celebrate with costume parties, enjoying treats and good times with friends. There are many ways of observing Samhain as there are witches the in the world.

In England today many of the Halloween traditions have re-established themselves over the past few years and it is very popular with children, but sadly in today’s climate many parents do not feel it safe to allow their offspring out roaming the streets on such activities, preferring parties to be held at home or in a safe venue.

Samhain or Halloween, the way the festival is celebrated will change but we can be sure that, in one form or another, the rite will go on.