Halloween was originally referred to as “All Hallow’s Eve”, the name given to the holiday because of its placement near the Christian church’s holiday of “All Saints” day, or “All Hallows”. Originally the Catholic holidays of “All Souls” and “All Saints” days that take place on and around Samhain (pronounced sowen, not sam hane by the Celts), were in February. However, when the Church spread to the Celtic lands, the dates were shifted to November.
“The modern Samhain has its roots in the ancient Celtic fire festival from which it gets its name, pronounced SOW-en, believed by some to mean “summer’s end”. Samhain is the Irish Gaelic name for the holiday, which is also called Samhuinn in Scottish and Calan Gaiaf in Welsh (Kondratiev, 1998). According to the Gaulish Coligny calendar, it is called Trinuoxtion Samonii, which means the “three nights of summer’s end”, indicating that the holiday was originally celebrated over a three-day period (Kondratiev, 1998).”
Despite the superstition that surrounds Samhain, it was originally a time for celebration and marked the pagan yearly cycle. In modern Gaelic, Samhain is the name for the month of November. It’s also the traditional beginning of the winter season.
It is impossible to determine the exact date of Samhain because it was agrarian based. In most modern practices, the date is set on October 31st. Some people celebrate it on November 12th holding to the older date before the transition of the Julian and Gregorian calendars that shifted everything back two weeks (McNeill, 1961).
The festival of Samhain (“summer’s end”) was celebrated the night before the New Year. During this festival, Celts believed the souls of the dead returned to mingle with the living and food was left on the doors for them. In order to scare away the evil spirits, people would wear masks and light bonfires. Samhain was a time that was both joyous and eerie, as it was marked by great feasts and community gatherings, but was also a time for telling ghost stories and tales of the faeries stealing people (McNeill, 1961).
The most obvious theme of Samhain was the belief of the thinning of the veil between the worlds. On this night the dead could return to visit the living and the fairy hills were opened, releasing all the creatures of fairy into the mortal world (Estyn Evans, 1957; McNeill, 1961). The belief in this was so strong in rural Ireland that it was considered extremely bad luck not to set an extra chair at the table, put out a bowl of a special porridge, and leave the door to the home open on Samhain (Estyn Evans, 1957). Another belief indicates that the door should be closed but left unlocked and a bowl of fresh water left out by the hearth to welcome any returning family ghosts that choose to visit (Danaher, 1972).
Many people believe that on Halloween night in particular, the “veil between the worlds” becomes thin and allows spirits to pass through more easily. It is important to note that upon further research, the overall consensus is that the veil is not thin on just one night. It is an astrological process and is not the thinnest on Halloween night.
The day that the veil is the thinnest actually changes from year to year based on Scorpio, which is the sign closest to the underworld and death. Some believe that the veil is thinnest on what is called a “cross-quarter day.” It is the date exactly between the equinox and solstice, or the date of the astrological event tied to the Sabbat. Samhain’s astrological date is when the sun reaches 15 degrees Scorpio. This year, those dates are: November 6 (Cross Quarter Date) and November 8 (Astrological Date).
This night was one of celebration and merry making, but people preferred to travel in groups, fearing that to walk alone on Samhain risked being taken forever into Faery (Danaher, 1972). It was thought that dusk and midnight were particularly dangerous times, and that the fairy troops passed to the west side of homes, and along water ways making it best to avoid these times and places (McNeill, 1961).
Modern day belief promotes the idea of the dead returning in a negative light, this was not the old belief. In the old practice, people didn’t fear the dead who came back to visit but saw them as protective of the living family (Danaher, 1972). It is a very old doctrine of the Celts that the soul is immortal and passes from one life to spirit and then to another life so it would be impossible for the Celts to see Samhain as a holiday devoid of celebration (McNeill, 1961). It is believed that the Samhain fires were lit as the sun set as a symbol of the light surviving in the dark (McNeill, 1961).
Halloween and Samhain represent many different things to many different people. The two themes that seem to prevail in each are the symbolism of death and the idea that the veil to the “otherworld” is fairly thin. Other than those two common themes, they are actually very different holidays.
Since the two holidays actually occur on two separate dates, why not have the best of both worlds by celebrating them both? They have two very different meanings after all. Carve pumpkins, don costumes, and participate in festivities on Halloween. Then a few days later, celebrate the veil’s thinning, the ancestors, and the dead on a day that’s devoted just to them.
Written by: Cindie Harper
Cindie Harper is a paranormal researcher and Founder of Femme Force. Cindie has a Master of Social Work degree from West Virginia University and is also a certified Reiki Master Teacher. Cindie believes in embracing the unknown. She is interested in most things paranormal, spiritual, creepy or spooky.
You can find Cindie on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/femmeforce
Sources and References:
Danaher, K., (1972) . The Year in Ireland. Mercier Press
Estyn Evans, E., (1957) . Irish folk Ways. Routledge and Kegan Paul
Freeman, P., (2002) War, Women, and Druids. University of Texas Press
Kondratiev, A., (1998) . The Apple Branch: a path to Celtic Ritual. Citadel Press.
McNeill, F., (1961) . The Silver Bough, volume 3: Halloween to Yule. Stuart Titles Limited.
Morrow, Ed. 2001. The Halloween Handbook. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press.
Rogers, Nicholas (2002). “Samhain and the Celtic Origins of Halloween”. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, pp.11–21. New York: Oxford University Press