Samhain – All Hallows Eve – Halloween
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Halloween is one of the last secular festivals remaining in the Western calendar. It’s a holiday that fascinates us, without requiring us to believe in anything. Yet, its ancient pagan roots date back to a time when ordinary people observed natures cycles of birth, death, and rebirth and explored the non-physical realms, the ‘Other Worlds’ as a natural and normal function of human experience. Whereas, today, Halloween is trivialised to little more than a commercialised costume party and a ‘trick or treat’ sugar blow-out for children. Our estrangement as a culture from the philosophy of Halloween is intriguing given that this ancient pagan ceremony is obviously increasing in popularity. So is there something deep and perhaps hidden within us that is prompted by an instinct to connect to the eternal cycles of nature?
Halloween’s origins date back to the Celts who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the UK and Northern France. The Celts believed that time was cyclical and not linear and celebrated the four seasonal festivals which related to the traditional pastoral calendar as well as the four moments during the year which are dictated by the relationship between the Earth and the Sun, the solstices and equinoxes.
For the Celts, November 1st marked their New Year’s celebration and the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sah-wain) which in Old Irish means ‘Summer’s End’. It was the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was naturally associated with death. Samhain was observed by the Celts from October 31 to November 2 and the Druids, who were the Celtic Priests, believed that at this time the veil between this world and the world of our ancestors was drawn aside so that journeys could be made across to the ‘other side’. The Druid rites were concerned with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration. The Druids believed that souls did not die. They viewed the realm of the ancestors, not as a realm of the dead, but as the repository of tribal wisdom where the soul awaited reincarnation. To commemorate this event, they built huge Sacred Bonfires, where the people came to gather and celebrate. They wore masks and costumes and children were allowed to knock on neighbours’ doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in the custom of trick-or-treating. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter months.
By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory and by the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread and gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. All Souls Day, November 2nd was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. All Saints Day on November 1st was called All-hallows or Hallowmas and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
Today Modern Druids still value Samhain as a time to honour the living-spirits of our loved ones as guardians who hold the wisdom of mankind. Druids believe that everything around us contains its own spirit, the rivers, mountains and every blade of grass and that these all belong to one universal spirit . The druids say their religion is all about living in harmony-with nature and Samhain is a celebration of the afterlife where we do not die but rest and continue to learn and prepare for our next incarnation….
So this Halloween, why not take a moment, and light a candle for the souls that have passed on from this physical plane, for the untold Mysteries that exist, and take advantage of the perfect moment to honour them.