When you think of Hallowe’en you may think of trick or treaters, ghosts and ghouls, pumpkins, candles and some may even think it is a night for evil magical antics. Where some of the above may have their place in Hallowe’en or Samhain as Witches call it, anything evil could not be further from the truth.
Over 2000 years ago, the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-wain, Sow-win or Sow-ween depending on where in the world you come from!) which was based on the old tradtional farming calendar. This festival was two fold. To celebrate the last harvest of the year and also to connect, honour, respect and be thankful for our ancestors.
Because it was the last harvest of the year Samhain night was considered to be the Celtic New Year’s Eve and many witches today still celebrate New Year at this time as the wheel of the year turns and the last of the wheat, berries, fruit and vegetables are harvested we look forward to the cold Winter knowing that back then, the barns, store cupboards and pantries were full.
This very special night is also the night where the veil between our world and the spirit world is at it’s thinnest. As our ancestors are welcomed in for this very special night, negative spirits are banished away and held at the door. In Ireland, a number of burial chambers were discovered via a historical archaeological dig and some of these burial chambers were aligned to the sunrise at Samhain. It would appear that the Celts would open these burial chambers to ease the passage of the spirits during Samhain Eve.
The two celebrations together make Samhain a feast for the dead. But more about that later.
Trick or Treating as we know it today, came from the Celtic tradition of ‘guising’ that was performed on Samhain Day (later renamed to All Saint’s Day when the Christian church morphed Celtic traditions into their own). Back in the Celtic guising times, people would disguise themselves in costumes and old clothes so the evil spirits that roamed the earth for that one night would not recognise them as they took sweets and other food to neighbours as gifts, in some areas people would put on a little show or performance in return for food or sweets, at the time this act was called ‘Mumming’ (dancing and performing in disguise) and Mummer’s still perform today at festivals.
Bonfires were often lit to celebrate Samhain. The warmth to welcome our ancestors and fire to keep away evil spirits. This then led, in part, to the tradition today of pumpkin carving and Jack O’Lanterns. Irish settlers traversing the United States wanted both something to symbolise fire to keep evil spirits away and also the last harvest. The Jack O’Lantern was born. A pumpkin carved into a face with a candle inside to represent pumpkins in the last harvest of the year and also to ward of a negative spirit they named Stingy Jack who was apparently in league with the Devil himself (just as a side note, traditional witches, do not believe in the Christianised Devil!). The Jack O’Lantern also has history with guising as people would carry hollowed out turnips and pumpkins with little wax stumps inside for candles to give them light when they were guising.
As a feast for the dead, Samhain in our house is all about our ancestors and giving thanks for what we have. We generally spend the entire day cooking for the evening feast. A 3 or 4 course meal, home cooked and a special empty plate laid out for our ancestors. At the start of the meal we say out loud a welcome to our ancestors speech and invite them to join our meal. On the spare plate we add a whole meal for them, we then eat the meal in silence. This act is called an Ancestral Dumb Supper.
After our evening feast. We each take a piece of paper and write a wish for the new year on it and then place the folded up wish into the family carved pumpkin. Once all of the evening meal stuff is put away, we take the pumpkin full of our wishes, the dumb supper plate and also a bowl of apples out to the Lancashire Moors and at a crossroads we leave the dumb supper (not the plate, just the food), the pumpkin and all the apples. The apples are our last gift to our ancestors so they can have a treat on their way back to the spirit world.
Samhain or Hallowe’en is not evil. It never was traditionally and it isn’t now. Commercial shops, TV shows, movies and sadly the church all like to assume we are worshipping the Devil on this Samhain Eve (once again, traditional witches do not believe in the Devil!). When in fact, what we are really doing is just being very thankful and honouring our loved ones that have passed on.
I wish you all, a very blessed Samhain. May your cupboards always be stocked, your tummy always filled with cake and your heart always filled with love.