All Hallows’ Eve
October 31: Samhain – the Festival of the Dead
October 31 is Samhain, also known as All Hallows’ Eve, a celebration of the Autumn Season . Not only is Samhain the end of autumn, it is also the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. It marks the Celtic New Year’s Eve, when the new year begins with the onset of the dark phase of the year, just as the new day begins at sundown. Mike Nichols explains that this, the most magical night of the year, is the third of the three harvest festivals of the Pagan year: the first, Lammas on August 1; the second, Harvest Home on September 25; and the last, Samhain on October 31.
Sly does it. Tiptoe catspaws. Slide and creep.
But why? What for? How? Who? When! Where
did it all begin?
“You don’t know, do you?” asks Carapace Clavicle
Moundshroud climbing out of the pile of leaves
under the Halloween Tree. “You don’t
Samhain. All Hallows. All Hallows’ Eve. Hallow E’en. Halloween. The most magical night of the year. Exactly opposite Beltane on the wheel of the year, Halloween is Beltane’s dark twin. A night of glowing jack-o’-lanterns, bobbing for apples, tricks or treats, and dressing in costume. A night of ghost stories and sťances, tarot card readings and scrying with mirrors. A night of power, when the veil that separates our world from the Otherworld is at its thinnest. A “spirit night”, as they say in Wales.
All Hallows' Eve is the eve of All Hallows’ Day (November
1). And for once, even popular tradition remembers that the
eve is more important than the day itself, the traditional celebration
focusing on October 31, beginning at sundown. And
this seems only fitting for the great Celtic New Year’s festival.
Not that the holiday was Celtic only. In fact, it is startling how
many ancient and unconnected cultures (the Egyptians and
pre-Spanish Mexicans, for example) celebrated this as a
festival of the dead. But the majority of our modern traditions
can be traced to the British Isles.
The Celts called it Samhain, which means “summer’s end”,
according to their ancient twofold division of the year, when
summer ran from Beltane to Samhain and winter ran from
Samhain to Beltane. (Some modern covens echo this structure
by letting the high priest “rule” the coven beginning on
Samhain, with rulership returned to the high priestess at
Beltane.) According to the later fourfold division of the year,
Samhain is seen as “autumn’s end” and the beginning of winter. Samhain is pronounced (depending on where you’re from)
as “sow-in” (in Ireland), or “sow-een” (in Wales), or “sav-en” (in Scotland), or (inevitably) “sam-hane” (in the U.S., where
we don’t speak Gaelic).
Not only is Samhain the end of autumn; it is also, more
importantly, the end of the old year and the beginning of the
new. Celtic New Year’s Eve, when the new year begins with
the onset of the dark phase of the year, just as the new day
begins at sundown. There are many representations of Celtic
Gods with two faces, and it surely must have been one of them
who held sway over Samhain. Like his Roman counterpart Janus,
he would straddle the threshold, one face turned toward
the past, in commemoration of those who died during the last
year, and one face gazing hopefully toward the future, mystic
eyes attempting to pierce the veil and divine what the coming
year holds. These two themes, celebrating the dead and divining
the future, are inexorably intertwined in Samhain, as they
are likely to be in any New Year’s celebration.
Feast of the Dead
As a feast of the dead, this was the one night when the dead
could, if they wished, return to the land of the living, to celebrate
with their family, tribe, or clan. And so the great burial
mounds of Ireland (sidhe mounds) were opened up, with
lighted torches lining the walls, so the dead could find their
way. Extra places were set at the table and food set out for any
who had died that year. And there are many stories that tell of
Irish heroes making raids on the Underworld while the gates
of faery stood open, though all must return to their appointed
places by cockcrow.
As a feast of divination, this was the night par excellence for
peering into the future. The reason for this has to do with the
Celtic view of time. In a culture that uses a linear concept of
time, like our modern one, New Year’s Eve is simply a milestone
on a very long road that stretches in a straight line from
birth to death. Thus, the New Year’s festival is a part of time.
The ancient Celtic view of time, however, is cyclical. And in
this framework, New Year’s Eve represents a point outside of
time, when the natural order of the universe dissolves back
into primordial chaos, preparatory to reestablishing itself in a
new order. Thus, Samhain is a night that exists outside of time
and, hence, it may be used to view any other point in time. At
no other holiday is a tarot card reading, crystal reading, or tealeaf
reading so likely to succeed.
The Christian religion, with its emphasis on the “historical”
Christ and his act of Redemption 2000 years ago, is forced
into a linear view of time, where seeing the future is an illogical
proposition. In fact, from the Christian perspective, any
attempt to do so is seen as inherently evil. This did not keep
the medieval church from co-opting Samhain’s other motif,
commemoration of the dead. To the church, however, it could
never be a feast for all the dead, but only the blessed dead, all
those hallowed (made holy) by obedience to God – thus, All
Hallows, or Hallowmas, later All Saints and All Souls.
Types of Divination
There are so many types of divination that are traditional
to Hallowstide, it is possible to mention only a few.
Girls were told to place hazelnuts along the front of the firegrate, each one
to symbolize one of her suitors. She could then divine her
future husband by chanting, “If you love me, pop and fly; if
you hate me, burn and die.”
Several methods used the apple,
that most popular of Halloween fruits. You should slice an apple
through the equator (to reveal the five-pointed star within)
and then eat it by candlelight before a mirror. Your future spouse
will then appear over your shoulder. Or, peel an apple, making
sure the peeling comes off in one long strand, reciting,
this apple round and round again;
My sweetheart’s name to
flourish on the plain:
I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head,
My sweetheart’s letter on the ground to read.”
might set a snail to crawl through the ashes of your hearth. The
considerate little creature will then spell out the initial letter as
Perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday is the jack-o’-lantern. Various authorities attribute it to either Scottish or Irish
origin. However, it seems clear that it was used as a lantern by
people who traveled the road this night, the scary face to frighten
away spirits or faeries who might otherwise lead one astray. Set
on porches and in windows, they cast the same spell of protection
over the household. (The American pumpkin seems to
have forever superseded the European gourd as the jack-o’-lantern of choice.)
Bobbing for apples may well represent the remnants of a Pagan “baptism” rite called a seining, according to some writers. The water-filled tub is a latter-day Cauldron of Regeneration, into which the novice’s head is immersed. The fact that the participant in this folk game was usually blindfolded with hands tied behind the back also puts one in mind of a traditional Craft initiation ceremony.
Trick or Treat
The custom of dressing in costume and “trick-or-treating”
is of Celtic origin, with survivals particularly strong in Scotland.
However, there are some important differences from the
modern version. In the first place, the custom was not relegated
to children, but was actively indulged in by adults as well. Also,
the “treat” that was required was often one of spirits (the liquid variety). This has recently been revived by college students
who go ‘trick-or-drinking’. And in ancient times, the roving
bands would sing seasonal carols from house-to-house, making
the tradition very similar to Yuletide wassailing. In fact, the
custom known as caroling, now connected exclusively with
Midwinter, was once practiced at all the major holidays.
Finally, in Scotland at least, the tradition of dressing in costume
consisted almost exclusively of cross-dressing (i.e., men
dressing as women, and women as men). It seems as though
ancient societies provided an opportunity for people to “try
on” the role of the opposite gender for one night of the year.
(Although in Scotland, this is admittedly less dramatic – but
more confusing – since men were in the habit of wearing skirtlike
kilts anyway. Oh well...)
To Witches, Halloween is one of the four High Holidays,
or Greater Sabbats, or cross-quarter days. Because it is the most
important holiday of the year, it is sometimes called “The Great
Sabbat”. It is an ironic fact that the newer, self-created covens
tend to use the older name of the holiday, Samhain, which
they have discovered through modern research. While the
older hereditary and traditional covens often use the newer
name, Halloween, which has been handed down through oral
tradition within their coven. (This often holds true for the
names of the other holidays, as well. One may often get an
indication of a coven’s antiquity by noting what names it uses
for the holidays.)
With such an important holiday, Witches often hold two
distinct celebrations. First, a large Halloween party for non-Craft friends, often held on the previous weekend. And second,
a coven ritual held on Halloween night itself, late enough
so as not to be interrupted by trick-or-treaters. If the rituals are
performed properly, there is often the feeling of invisible
friends taking part in the rites. Another date that may be utilized
in planning celebrations is the actual cross-quarter day,
or Old Halloween, or Halloween O.S. (Old Style). This occurs
when the sun has reached fifteen degrees Scorpio, an astrological
“power point” symbolized by the Eagle. The celebration
would begin at sunset. Interestingly, this date (Old Halloween)
was also appropriated by the Church as the holiday of Martinmas.
Of all the Witchcraft holidays, Halloween is the only one
that still boasts anything near to popular celebration. Even
though it is typically relegated to children (and the young-at-heart)
and observed as an evening affair only, many of its traditions
are firmly rooted in Paganism. Incidentally, some schools
have recently attempted to abolish Halloween parties on the
grounds that it violates the separation of state and religion.
Speaking as a Pagan, I would be saddened by the success of
this move, but as a supporter of the concept of religion-free
public education, I fear I must concede the point. Nonetheless,
it seems only right that there should be one night of the
year when our minds are turned toward thoughts of the supernatural.
A night when both Pagans and non-Pagans may ponder
the mysteries of the Otherworld and its inhabitants. And if
you are one of them, may all your jack-o’-lanterns burn bright
on this All Hallows' Eve.
This is the end of the article.
To read more on the pagan origins of many of our holidays, visit The Witches’ Sabbats.