As one of four Fire Festivals, this is one of the most important celebrations of the year for modern pagans and one I particularly enjoy.
Samhain’s original purpose was to celebrate the final harvest of the year and prepare for the hard days of winter, for our ancestors farmed the land and lived from its bounty. They had no science, no technology. Everything they had came from the land on which they made their homes; their lives depended on what they could hunt or gather and so they lived with, and by, the seasons. In their tribal culture, they had to make the best use of what nature provided during the growing season and store sufficient to ensure their tribe’s survival through the winter ahead.
Samhain was celebrated around October 31, when the last harvest had been gathered and the food had been safely stored. The last of the grain harvest would be put aside for animal feed. Cattle would be culled and only those best suited to surviving the lean months would be kept until spring. For the poorer farmers, it was a question of how much livestock they could afford to feed over the winter months. The meat from the cull would be salted and cured to keep the families fed until the land began to produce food once again.
Everyone, high born or low, was involved in this work. But at the end of all their labours, they would feast. This was a way of celebrating their work’s end and of giving thanks to the gods and goddesses of the land who had provided their food.
It may seem odd that the end of summer should be celebrated as the most important of the ancient festivals. But to our ancestors, all things began in darkness; the Celtic day began at dusk and so it is logical that their counting of the year would begin at the onset of darkness too.
Samhain was not just a time of gratitude and thankfulness to Gods for their generosity but also a time to ask for their protection through the winter to come. For just as Samhain marks the end of one season, it also heralds the beginning of the new and to our Celtic forefathers, Samhain was the New Year, or the turning of the Wheel. One of their many gods would straddle this time nexus, looking back over the passing year and looking forward to the days ahead.
It was in that spirit of reflection and remembrance that their simple harvest festival of thanks and feasting took on another role, that of honouring their beloved dead and inviting them, for one night of revelry, to join them again in the physical world. These were superstitious folk, who believed that by doing this, the restless earth bound souls of their departed would be able to rest and not trouble them in the year to come.
This custom lives on in Hallowe’en with its themes of ghosts; is echoed by All Saints Day in honour of the Saints of Christianity celebrated on November 1st and echoes once more in Latin America on El Dia de los Muertos; the Day of the Dead. On this day families decorate the graves of their dear departed with flowers, sweets and other gifts. And so, the two themes most evident in modern Hallowe’en celebrations ~ of remembering the dead and divining the future ~ are inextricably linked to these first pagan customs. The bonfires now associated with November 5th, also hark back to the Samhain festival, which is always celebrated with fire.
In your own ritual, you may like to honour this tradition by naming and celebrating your own departed loved ones, then ‘return to the light’ by welcoming in any newborns who have come into your life during the past year as well as giving thanks for new friends and opportunities.
In this way, your Samhain festival will be a very special reminder of the endless cycle of death and renewal, the mystery of one and the bright joyfulness of the other.
And so we meet at old Samhain
The season’s wheel must turn again
And merry maids and merrier men
Will celebrate its turning!
We eat the fruit and plant the seed,
We carve the ‘neeps and drink the mead,
On meat and roasted roots we’ll feed
All while the logs are burning!
Spirits of old, come gather near,
Loved ones passed we still hold dear,
Gather all, be of good cheer,
The night is swiftly turning!
We bid farewell to summer’s light,
Hecate guide us through the night,
And in our hearts, forever bright,
Lugh’s flame is gently burning!
Freespirit © 2005
Brightest Blessings for Samhain x