Sometimes people find that knowing the background of holidays is useful. If you have this knowledge, a flashback, a nightmare, a strange association can suddenly make sense. The cult probably incorporated parts of the holiday tradition that are no longer observed in the wider society.

Here is some information about Halloween.

Samhain (pronounced SOW-wen) is derived from the Celtic root “samon’ (summer) and means “summer’s end.” In modern Gaelic languages the festival is called Samhain (Irish), Samhuinn (Scots Gaelic), and Sauin (Manx).

In the eighteenth century, some Christian writers assumed that Samhain was the god of the underworld. Pre-Christian Celts, however, had no god of death or the underworld. Winter and death were seen simply as part of life.

The Celts believed that life grew from darkness and chaos, just as a baby grows in the darkness of the womb. Therefore the day started at dusk and the new year started at Samhain —  the beginning of winter. All things had their beginning in the fertile chaos that was hidden from the rational mind.

Beltane, the opposite festival six months later, marked the end of winter, and the two seasons reflected opposite energies within the year. What was explicit and active in one season was implicit and dormant in the other. The seeds of spring were already growing in the underworld on Samhain, and it was necessary to honor emerging life and make connections with the latent life energy in the underworld for the next growing season to be fruitful.

On Samhain, the veil between the two worlds was considered to be thinnest, and the dead could travel freely among the living. Strengthening ties with the dead allowed people to make contact with the dormant fertility of the underworld and was a sacred duty. People opened their doors and windows for the dead and prepared plates of food for them. In some places, the food was not to be eaten; in others, it was distributed to the poor in the community.

On Samhain, the ritual fires were put out and then relit, just as on Beltane. The cattle were brought back to the barns from the pastures. Offerings had to be made to the land spirits to thank them for the past season and to replenish their energies for the coming spring. Some cattle were slaughtered for the winter in a ritual blood offering, and sometimes blood was sprinkled in the four corners of homes for protection.

Just as summer dissolved into winter at Samhain, so the usual social order dissolved. The lower classes were allowed to be  be rude to the upper classes. Gender boundaries were dissolved by cross-dressing and people in costume went from house to house singing and drinking. Things could get pretty rowdy.

The Church concentrated on honoring the dead (Christian dead, of course) and declared November 1 to be All Hallows, or All Saints’ Day. The Benedictines in about 1000 AD started celebrated November 2 as All Souls Day to include all the dead of the community. Halloween (Hallow Evening), October 31, was reserved for “fun” and “mischief” before the solemn All Saints’ Day.

Today, costumed children go from door to door trick or treating. Adults no longer get dressed up and go door to door singing and drinking — except in some suburbs! Children can be rude to their betters by playing tricks if they are not bribed with candy. Pumpkins and corn are symbolic of the crops that have just been harvested, although these are new world crops. The ubiquitous ghosts come from the ancestral dead that came back to visit Celtic households. Black cats and witches have no Celtic roots — they are later additions that signify that Samhain is a pagan holiday, complete with witches, warlocks, and their familiars.

First published in Survivorship Notes, September, 1999.

31 thoughts on “Samhain/Halloween

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