Samhain and Halloween in Britain and Ireland: The History and Traditions of the Autumn Festival

From Samhain to HalloweenSamhain means summer’s end, and was the Celtic New Year. It was the second major fire festival of the Celtic Year, and ran from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 2 November. In Ancient Wisdom (Parragon), Cassandra Eason wrote that ‘It originally marked the onset of winter, when the cattle were brought from the hills…The Celts believed that with the onset of winter the ghosts of the departed would come shivering from the woodlands and bare fields for the shelter of their former cottages. Food would be left in the kitchens or parlours for them.’

British Paganism came under attack from Christianity after the Romans invaded in the first century AD, with many holy sites destroyed, and the old traditions frowned upon. However, the Romans did take the dates of Celtic festivals into consideration, and simply introduced their own versions of the Celtic traditions on the same dates.

Pope Gregory IV standardised the date of All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day, to November 1st for the whole Christian church in 837, and thus set in place the name of Halloween which survives to the present day. Halloween is shortened from All Hallows’ Even, with Even having the same meaning as Eve.

Halloween Traditions

As people now wear fancy dress; masks and disguises were worn in the early years of Halloween, as it was thought to be a time when supernatural forces wreaked havoc, and the living did not want to be recognised by the deceased spirits. They would also put turnip heads holding lighted candles in their windows to ward off evil spirits, and this developed into the Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin tradition in the United States of America (USA), after the Halloween tradition was exported by early settlers.

Fires continued to be lighted on hills, as the Celts had done to honour their gods, as Samhain was a fire festival. In Ireland the fires still burn on Halloween night, but in Britain it has been put back until November 5th. The fires are also thought to have offered protection against malevolent spirits, provided warmth to the people as they danced in the dark, and a furnace for the bones of cattle sacrificed in preparation for the winter.

Similar Traditions in Other CulturesHalloween is now more popular in the USA than Britain, with streets and houses decked out in lighted pumpkins and scary characters for weeks around October 31st. The fancy dress theme has been watered down however, and people dress as a variety of characters, not only the scary or hidden.

A similar festival, The Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Mexico on November 2nd, with people inviting the spirits of their deceased relatives back to their homes for a meal. In Japan, the Festival of Lanterns takes place in August, but has a similar theme to The Day of the Dead, and the old Celtic tradition of Samhain.

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