Happy Samhain to all as we celebrate the death of the light and make way for the winter. This Gaelic festival was held to herald the end of the harvest and came from Ireland to Scotland and similar festivals took place in Wales, Cornwall and France. There are many traditions that we still adhere to today as we call it Hallowe’en, but many came from Pagan ideas, god’s and rituals and you can see the links from centuries ago to the festivities being held tonight.
The party starts at sundown on the 31st of October until sundown on November 1st and it was believed that the dead re-entered out world and this led to many “traditions” some of which we still continue with. The big one is going door to door for food – now called “Trick or Treat” it was believed that people dressed up in ghoulish costumes or disguises to protect themselves from the darker spirits who came back from the dead. The idea is that if the spirits see you at houses they will leave well alone as they believe that the house already has otherworldly visitors. That’s also the reason or the carved turnips and now pumpkins because you had to put one at your door to ward off those same spirits.
Ducking for apples combines the idea that you will have harvested your fruit and veg with the old ritual for getting rid of witches using the ducking stool. The left over fruit would be the witches and children had to “dook” for them. The other food related tradition that I really like, is that you are supposed to set a spare place at your table to remember those in your life you have lost over the years. Samhain was often seen as the Celtic New Year as it meant that it was the end of the farming year and the beginning of the next. You were supposed to take you cows and sheep down from the hills to kill for food – another link with death that we still have as part of our modern version of the celebrations. You should also have a bonfire to burn away all the evil and issues to start afresh in the new year – you can see how Guy Fawkes night and guising came about buy taking a couple of the elements of Samhain and moving them on a week.
Samhain was very much part of our tradition on and off for centuries despite the Catholic Church renaming the festival All Hallows Eve (31st Oct), All Saints Day (1st Nov) and All Souls’ Day (2nd Nov). This was par for the course with the church trying to remove all the Pagan festivals and replace them with their own versions – Easter, Christmas etc. In fact there was a real resurgence in Samhain from the mid 1700s that took in the idea of kids dressing up and causing trouble which led to the other name of “Mischief Night” which is still celebrated in the north of England as “Cheevy Night” – again another version of Trick or Treat. The Catholic version also spread around the world with South America and Africa taking the festival on and making their own – most famously with the Mexican celebration of “Dei de Muertos” or Day of the Dead not being a million miles from our own original Celtic celebrations.
Since the Scots and the Irish have set up home all across the word the tradition carried too and it’s the Americans who really latched on to it. Despite all the grumps and moans about Hallowe’en being an American thing it is still very much based on the old Celtic Traditions of over two thousand years ago. From dressing up to the evil spirits we are still enjoying the same scares and stories these years later – and if we really do want to celebrate our heritage rather than just going for the commercialised bits and baubles we should start setting that place at the table and enjoy nature more at this time of year. Remember out traditions.
Happy Samhain everyone