So, we’ve talked about Halloween. We’ve talked about Dia de los Muertos. I thought I’d continue Jen’s unintended theme from the last post and bring up yet another late October, early November holiday in celebration of spirits, ghosts, and things we don’t understand.
Samhain (pronounced SOW-an or SAH-wan) is a Celtic fire festival, one that was (arguably) celebrated by Iron Age pagan societies in territories from Ireland and Scotland, down through Wales and England and into northern France. Often known as the Celtic New Year, Samhain marks the transition from the light half of the year into the dark half of the year, and honors the spirits of the dead.
In Ireland, Samhain was a time for gathering together and feasting to celebrate the completion of the year’s harvest. The fires from those feasts and ashes of Samhain hearth fires were often used for divination or even spread out over the fields to provide protection against ghosties and ghoulies and beasties.
They say the veil is thin at Samhain and its springtime counterpart, Beltane. They say the dead walk closer, that they can hear us or even touch us. Fairies and spirits lurk in the shadows, peering through the gateway that for most of the year is locked and nigh-on impenetrable.
I’m playing up the spooky aspects, of course. These days, pagans celebrate Samhain on the night of October 31 and/or the day of November 1, typically with fires, feasting, and altars set up in honor of their ancestors. While there’s an element of caution and wild magic—who knows what could come through those gates!—the focus of the celebration is on remembrance and love for those who have passed beyond our reach.
The similarities between Samhain, Dia de los Muertos, and Halloween are of course fairly obvious—but it’s fascinating that across the world, people choose this time to contemplate one of life’s great mysteries and let themselves acknowledge their fears. At Halloween, we consider the things that frighten us and the beings we can’t understand. For Dia de los Muertos, we let go of the fear and honor those who have gone before us. And for Samhain, bridging the gap between the two, we honor the dead and ward ourselves against entities that might pose a threat.
Not so different after all, huh? Then again, we all love a good feast and a party!
Do you celebrate Samhain? How do these themes work into your own seasonal celebrations?