The idea of night and day was central to everyday existence in Celtic culture. Bealtaine and Samhain were two of their most important holidays. Their year was split between a dark half and a light half, and the transition from one to the other was celebrated with festivities. Samhain is a term that is often translated to mean “summer’s end,” and it was certainly a festival that took place during the darker half of the year.
It was considered more important than Bealtaine (and another two lesser festivals known as Imbolc and Lughnasadh) because the dark half of the year was more dangerous and more likely to be sorrowful. A 24-hour festival was held from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st to say goodbye to the light and welcome the dark.
The Celts also held the belief that during this time of twenty-four hours, the deceased were able to travel between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Because of this, it was very necessary to treat the dead with respect and refrain from doing anything that would offend them.
Samhain was a festival that was observed not just by Irish Celts but also by their equivalents in Scotland and Manx, as well as by numerous variants of the festival with subtle modifications in Wales and Brittany. It is mentioned in some of Ireland’s earliest written documents, which date back to the 10th century, although it had already been in existence for a significant amount of time before then.
According to the opinions of those knowledgeable in the subject, it most likely began while the Celts were still pastoral people. They would have spent the summer cultivating crops and raising animals, and the winter gathering food and going into hibernation. Their life would have revolved around the seasons.
It was a crucial time of year for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the end of October would have been the period when commerce and fighting would have paused until the weather improved again. The date was often selected for the holding of significant tribal meetings and was also used as a jumping-off point for the creation of myths and stories.
The Hill of Tara
Tiachtga and the Hill of Tara are two hills in the Boyne Valley that are especially linked with Samhain. Of the two, Tiachtga is considered to be the more significant hill. The Great Fire festival, which was held there, was by a significant margin the largest event of its kind in the surrounding region. When the massive fire at Tiachtga was finally set ablaze, it was an indication that everything was in order and that further flames could be constructed.
In addition, it signaled the beginning of the enormous feast. Nevertheless, Tara was thought to be noteworthy due to the fact that the Mound of Hostages, which was located towards the top of the hill, was aligned with the rising sun during that time of year.
Celebration of the Festival of the Dead
It was believed that the veil that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead was at its thinnest during the holiday of Samhain. This allowed otherworldly spirits, both good and bad, to move freely back and forth between the two worlds. Because of this, things were fairly difficult for the surviving Celts, as they wanted to both welcome back their loved ones and keep off the bad spirits, which was a challenge given the circumstances.
It was stated that the time from sunset to sunset was “between years,” which simply means that time did not pass during that period of time, making it possible for anything to take place. Around this period, the many different legendary beings and spirits from Irish mythology, such as the banshee, the pooka, and of course, the fairies, were all quite active.
According to urban legend, if a human apprehended a banshee at Samhain, they would be able to put an end to her suffering and ensure that she would never inflict it on another human again.
The homes of the fairies in the underworld as well as the fairies themselves were completely visible to humans, and humans were fully able to interact with them. However, if humans did anything that was considered offensive or disrespectful, or if they broke any rules, they would be cast into the “other” world and would never be allowed to return.
The walking dead also have the ability to converse with the living and to demand payment for obligations that had previously been owed. Burial grounds, as well as crossroads, bridges, and the borders of neighboring lands, served as portals for ghosts to go between dimensions as they passed through the area. Because of this, many individuals decided it was safer to remain indoors and face their fears than to go out into the world.
What exactly took place during the Samhain celebration?
It doesn’t seem like a very joyous holiday when you think about it, yet most of the Samhain events revolved around the fire and the dead. Every fire that was burning in people’s houses was extinguished, and a large bonfire was erected in the middle of each hamlet. It was believed that the fire has curative and protecting properties, and it served as the focal point of the celebration.
Afterward, everybody who want to carry this holiness into their own houses was required to start their fire using flames taken from the bonfire.
There were many other ceremonies that took place around the campfire, including the sacrifice of animals, music, and dancing.
According to some versions of the story, a purification ceremony consisted of individuals stepping in between two flames that had been constructed next to one other and guiding their animals through the process as well. Along with the skeletons of killed cattle, ‘wicker men’ were also thrown over the fire. Wicker men were composed of food, bones, or even animals (or maybe even people) enclosed in wicker cages.
A massive feast was another important component of the festivities, and it was held over the course of more than one day on either side of the actual day of the festival itself. It was a good chance to get rid of perishable items before the winter set in, and as it was often a time when large groups of people got together for big meetings, it made sense to host a feast regardless of the reason for coming together.
The rural Celts had a lot of work to do around the time of Samhain since they needed to bring their cows in from the pasture for the winter, decide which ones to the butcher for food, and get ready for the harvest. After all of that had been completed, it is safe to assume that all they want was a delicious lunch that was still warm.
All of the doorways to a house would have been left open so that the spirits may come and go as they pleased. A specific quantity of food and a seat at the table was reserved for any deceased family members who chose to come back to their homes for the celebration.
The food that was meant for the dead was not allowed to be touched by human hands between the hours of sunset and sunset because this was considered to be a terrible act of sacrilege and meant that the person who committed it would become a hungry spirit after they passed away and would never be allowed to participate in the Samhain celebration again.
The rituals and traditions of Samhain
There were also plenty of odd practices that were carried out throughout the time of Samhain. The Celts had an irrational dread of fairies, and since they were believed to be at their most powerful around Samhain, food offerings were often placed outside of people’s homes in the hope that the fairies would remain in a good mood. It was also standard practice for people to disguise themselves by wearing masks and switching up their wardrobes so that the fairies would have a difficult time distinguishing between individuals in the event that they chose to take any souls.
As a part of the festivities, the individuals in disguise would go from house to house singing in exchange for a small token of food; if the homeowner was not obliging, they threatened to cause all kinds of mischief in the vein of an evil spirit descending on the house. This sounds a little bit like trick or treating, doesn’t it?
In addition to hiding their identities with masks, pranksters would carry lanterns manufactured from vegetables such as turnips that had been hollowed out. These lanterns had two purposes: they provided light and offered safety (those evil spirits and fairies had no mercy). They would often carve monstrous faces onto their lanterns so that anyone walking by would think the lanterns belonged to demons.
Children and adults alike would participate in a variety of activities designed to keep the dead entertained. These activities would include rehashing the events of the previous year, with the hope that the dead would maintain an interest in the goings-on of the living, as well as incorporating a number of child’s games into the ritual practices themselves.
Additionally, obligations owed to both the living and the deceased were settled during the Samhain holiday. There was a general ceasefire observed, and during that time, conversations and amicable contests took place amongst tribes who would not have interacted with each other outside of the battlefield otherwise.
People from the communities in the area would remove some of the ashes that were left behind after the bonfires burned out because they believed that doing so would bring about a bountiful crop. The ashes did, in fact, make the soil better in spite of everything, so this was one notion that was proven correct each year.
How did the celebration of Samhain become Halloween?
Once Christianity was introduced to Ireland, traditional Celtic holidays such as Samhain and others were “Christianized.” Samhain, also known as the Festival of the Dead, was renamed the Festival of All Saints and Martyrs, also known as All Saints Day because the early Christians on the island were determined to do all in their power to eradicate pagan ceremonies and spread their religion all across the island.
When the Pope of the time moved it to November 1st, he did so in order to ‘incorporate’ the pagan feast, which had previously been celebrated in March. Even though people adopted the new holiday as their own, the traditional rituals and practices that were linked with Samhain continued to be practiced for many decades after the holiday had been replaced. There were even a few of them that survived all the way up to the current day!