Samhain, better known as All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween, is an ancient Celtic festival meaning Summer’s End. It is a celebration of the dead and on this night those souls who have passed over are said to be able to revisit the earth to be with the living.
It is one of the two spirit-nights of the year, the other being Beltane. It is a magical interval when the mundane laws of time and space are temporarily suspended, and the Veil between the worlds is lifted, making it a Night of Power. Communicating with ancestors and departed loved ones is easy at this time, for they journey through this world on their way to the Summerlands. This is a night for telling chilling ghost stories by the fire, a time for seances, tarot card readings, scrying with mirrors, and channeling with the Ouija board.
Today the Sun God reaches the womb of the Goddess and is conceived. He readies himself to be birthed at Yule. It occurs exactly opposite of Beltane on the Wheel of the Year. On this night, we now celebrate with a night of glowing jack-o-lanterns, tricks or treats, and dressing in costume.
Samhain signifies the end of Autumn but more importantly, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. This was symbolized as the onset of the dark phase of the year, just as the new day begins at sundown.
Originally the Feast of the Dead was celebrated in Celtic countries by leaving food offerings on altars and doorsteps for the wandering dead. It was believed that at this time the dead could return to the land of the living to celebrate with their family, tribe, or clan. The great burial cairns of Ireland (sidhe mounds) were opened up with lighted torches lining the walls, so the dead could find their way. Extra places were set at the table and food set out for any who had died that year. It is still customary to set an extra place at your supper table on Samhain Eve in honor of the departed.
The Wee Folke become very active on this night, pulling pranks on unsuspecting humans. Traveling after dark was was not advised. People dressed in white (like ghosts), wore disguises made of straw, or dressed as the opposite gender in order to fool the Nature spirits.
In some parts it was also thought that as the dead wandered through our world they could take the living back to the otherside with them when they returned. The practice of costume dressing was originated to prevent the dead from being able to recognize the living, and thus sparing an untimely demise!
Perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday is the Jack-O-Lantern, which has been attributed to either Scottish or Irish origin. Lanterns were used by people who traveled the road this night and the scary face was to frighten away spirits or faeries who might otherwise lead one astray. Set on porches and in windows, they cast the same spell of protection over the household.
This was the time for slaughtering of cattle and other livestock to ensure bountiful food in the ensuing winter months. No crops still in the field on Samhain were harvested. These were left in homage to the Nature spirits for payment of that year’s harvest and the wish for plenty in the coming year.
Bonfires were lit. These were originally called bone-fires because after the feast, the bones were thrown in the fire as offerings for healthy and plentiful livestock in the New Year. Stones, marked with peoples names, were thrown into the fire and retrieved in the morning. The condition of the retrieved stone foretold of that person’s fortune in the coming year. Hearth fires were also lit from the village bonfire to ensure unity, and the ashes were spread over the harvested fields to protect and bless the land.
Symbolism of Samhain: Third Harvest, the Dark Mysteries, and Rebirth through Death.
Symbols of Samhain: Gourds, Apples, Black Cats, Jack-O-Lanterns, and Besoms.
Herbs of Samhain: Mugwort, Allspice, Broom, Catnip, Deadly Nightshade, Mandrake, Oak leaves, Sage, and Straw.
Foods of Samhain: Turnips, Apples, Gourds, Nuts, Mulled Wines, Beef, Pork, and Poultry.
Incense of Samhain: Heliotrope, Mint, and Nutmeg.
Colors of Samhain: Black, Orange, White, Silver, and Gold.
Stones of Samhain: All Black Stones, preferably Jet or Obsidian.