Samhain and Halloween
People often think that the Celtic Festival of Samhain and Halloween are the same thing. Even though they have many similarities there is one major difference. Samhain is a pagan festival whereas Halloween seems to have come from Christian history. Samhain is a festival that was celebrated from sunset on the 31st of October (as we know it today) until sunset on the following day which is the 1st of November. The idea behind the festival is that Samhain is a Celtic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year and is roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
Samhain is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh. Would you believe that some Neolithic passage tombs here in Ireland are aligned with the sunrise around the time of Samhain?
So how was Samhain celebrated?
First and foremost because the festival started at sunset special bonfires were lit. These were thought to have protective and cleansing powers and there were rituals involving them. Samhain was seen as a liminal time (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. This meant the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, could more easily come into our world.
Most scholars see the Aos Sí, or spirits, as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. At Samhain, it was believed that the Aos Sí needed to be propitiated (which is the act of appeasing or making well-disposed a deity, thus incurring divine favor or avoiding divine retribution) to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter.
Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. “Mumming” and “guising” were part of the festival, and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise), often reciting verses in exchange for food.
The costumes may have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí. Divination rituals and games were also a big part of the festival and often involved nuts and apples.
What about Halloween?
Seemingly Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. Soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. The Roman Catholic holy day of All Saints (or All Hallows) was introduced in the year 609 but was originally celebrated on 13 May.
In the 11th century, 2 November became established as All Souls’ Day. This created the three-day observance known as Allhallowtide: All Hallows’ Eve (31 October), All Hallows’ Day (1 November), and All Souls’ Day (2 November).
So now you can see why it is widely believed that many of the modern secular customs of All Hallows’ Eve (or Halloween) were influenced by the festival of Samhain.