October 31st Is The Pagan Festival of Samhain - The Night Ghosts Are Released From The Underworld
The Pagan Festival of Samhain is celebrated on October 31st or November 1st depending on the tradition. It is also knows as The Celtic New Year, The Witch's New Year, and The Day of the Dead.
In this post we'll start off with some background on Samhain then show some of the traditional celebrations.
What is Samhain?
Grandma's Cauldron starts us off with a look at what the early Shamain celebrations represented:
Celebrated on the night between October 31 and November 1, it was at this time of year that the herds and flocks were culled of the beasts which were not expected to live through the winter. The meat was dried or salted for use throughout the winter months.
Though Samhain marked the end of the agricultural year, it was the first holiday in the Celtic Wheel of the Year. The Celts believed that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was very thin on Samhain Eve, just as it was on Beltaine and Midsummer's Eve. When the veil thinned, the souls of those who had died during the previous year could enter the Summerland. The living could also journey into the land of the Dead.
Druidy.org gives us some background on the festival's spiritual meaning:
The Celtic people were in superstitious awe of times and places "in between". Holy sites were any border places - the shore between land and water (seas, lakes, and rivers), bridges, boundaries between territories (especially when marked by bodies of water), crossroads, thresholds, etc. Holy times were also border times - twilight and dawn marking the transitions of night and day; Beltaine and Samhain marking the transitions of summer and winter. Read your myths and fairytales - many of the stories occur in such places, and at such times.
At Samhain (which corresponds to modern Halloween), time lost all meaning and the past, present, and future were one. The dead, and the denizens of the Other World, walked among the living. It was a time of fairies, ghosts, demons, and witches. Winter itself was the Season of Ghosts, and Samhain is the night of their release from the Underworld. Many people lit bonfires to keep the evil spirits at bay. Often a torch was lit and carried around the boundaries of the home and farm, to protect the property and residents against the spirits throughout the winter.
The connection and controversy between Halloween and Samhain
Sad to say there have been many fundamentalists who are inciting ignorance and bigotry into the celebrations of Halloween. No longer is Halloween a religious festival here in the US. It has become commercialized as an event for kids to have fun, play dress up and be scared by ghouls and ghosts. It has become nothing more than a secular holiday.
Those who have tried to link Halloween to Samhain are also missing the boat. As Halloween, All Hallows Eve are Christian created holidays devised by the early Churches of Europe as a means to convert pagans to Christianity. The celebrations were indeed taken from pagan practices, but their purposes have long since been corrupted and are no longer pagan in nature.
There are many Samhain traditions passed down through the generations. Some have been integrated into present day U.S. Halloween celebrations, others remain within the Pagan and New Age community. Below is a list of some of those traditions.
AllSaintsBrookline outlines how pretending to be ghosts was part of the Celtic traditions:
Young people would put on strange disguises and roam about the countryside, pretending to be the returning dead or spirits from the Otherworld. Celts thought the break in reality on November Eve not only provided a link between the worlds, but also dissolved the structure of society for the night. Boys and girls would put on each other's clothes, and would generally flout convention by boisterous behavior and by playing tricks on their elders and betters.
Moonshadows-Realm describes the importance of fire:
Fire has always played an important part at Samhain. It was very important to the Celts as it was to all early people. In the old days people lit bonfires to ward away evil spirits and in some places they used to jump over the fire to bring good luck. Samhain was a fire festival to the Celts and in Ireland, originally all fires were put out save the sacred one which was kindled by the old rubbing sticks method, branches were then taken to light all fires in the land. Pagans today include a fire outside if possible for our celebrations, or indoors a candle in a cauldron is used to signify this.
Honoring the ancestors
Originally the "Feast of the Dead" was celebrated in Celtic countries by leaving food offerings on altars and doorsteps for the "wandering dead". Today a lot of practitioners still carry out that tradition. Single candles were lit and left in a window to help guide the spirits of ancestors and loved ones home. Extra chairs were set to the table and around the hearth for the unseen guest. Apples were buried along roadsides and paths for spirits who were lost or had no descendants to provide for them. Turnips were hollowed out and carved to look like protective spirits, for this was a night of magic and chaos. The Wee Folke became very active, 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.
PaganWiccan on About.com outlines more traditions:
If you'd like to celebrate the Day of the Dead in your own family, you can either incorporate it into your Samhain festivities, or hold it as a separate event. Here are some ways you can observe the Day of the Dead, no matter what your cultural background may be.
Build an ancestor shrine in your home, so that everyone in your family can remember the dead.
Make sugar skulls, or calaveras, and coffins.
If your loved ones are buried nearby, visit their graves. Clean up the headstone if it's looking shoddy, and leave a small gift or token of your visit.
Prepare a special dinner for your family, and include a place setting for those who have died. You can either make it formal and serious, like the Dumb Supper, or joyous and fun - it's up to you. Decorate the dinner table with lots of candles and flowers.
Hold a ritual to honor your deceased ancestors. Make offerings if appropriate.
SchoolOfSeasons notes that the evening is an especially good time for divination:
Since the spirits are so close to us on this night, this is an excellent time for all forms of divination. You have more access to your personal underworld, your unconscious. Consult your favorite oracle — the tarot cards, the I Ching, a Ouija board, runes, tea leaves or a crystal ball. Request images of what you can become or what you will do in the new year.
There are many traditional forms of divination practiced on this night, most of them used to reveal the identity of your future spouse. If this is not something you need to know, ask for another vision.
The Jack O'Lantern
NewAge tells us where the Jack O'Lantern tradition originated from:
The tradition of face-carved pumpkin lanterns is thought to be derived from the Celts' placing of ancestors' skulls outside their doors at this time. Others see it as originating from using lanterns to ward off any evil spirits, which may be wandering through the thin veil into the living world on this All Hallows Eve.
The lit pumpkins also symbolise that in the darkness of winter the light continues within the seeds, tubers and bulbs dormant under the earth - they are still full of life and glowing like the candles within the pumpkins.
The name Jack O'Lantern derives from an old Irish tale of a villain who after he died could not enter heaven or hell - a damned soul. So he was condemned to wander the land with only a candle to see his way (some say it was a hot ember from the devil), which he placed inside a gouged out vegetable to act as a lantern. Others believe Jack-O-Lantern was a mischievous spirit who carried a light at night and lures night travellers into bogs or marshes, which were the dwelling places of fairies.
Bonfire image from Little Baby G on Flickr