Samhain ( //, //, or //) is a Gaelic festival held on October 31–November 1. The Irish name Samhain is derived from Old Irish and means roughly "summer's end". A harvest festival with ancient roots in Celtic polytheism, it was linked to festivals held around the same time in other Celtic cultures, and continued to be celebrated in late medieval times.
Samhain marked the end of the harvest, the end of the "lighter half" of the year and beginning of the "darker half". It was traditionally celebrated over the course of several days. Many scholars believe that it was the beginning of the Celtic year. It has some elements of a festival of the dead. The Gaels believed that the border between this world and the otherworld became thin on Samhain; because some animals and plants were dying, it thus allowed the dead to reach back through the veil that separated them from the living. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. People and their livestock would often walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames.
The Gaelic custom of wearing costumes and masks, was an attempt to copy the spirits or placate them. In Scotland the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white.Samhnag — turnips which were hollowed-out and carved with faces to make lanterns — were also used to ward off harmful spirits. Thus was the beginning of our modern day Jack-o-lanterns.
The Gaelic festival became associated with the Christian All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, and has hugely influenced the secular customs now connected with Halloween, a name first attested in the 16th century as a Scottish shortening of the fuller All-Hallows-Even. Samhain continues to be celebrated as a religious festival by some Neopagans.
The Samhain celebrations have survived in several guises as a festival dedicated to the harvest and the dead. In Ireland and Scotland, the Féile na Marbh, the 'festival of the dead' took place on Samhain.
The night of Samhain, in Irish, Oíche Shamhna and Scots Gaelic, Oidhche Shamhna, is one of the principal festivals of the Celtic calendar, and falls on the October 31. It represents the final harvest. In modern Ireland and Scotland, the name by which Halloween is known in the Gaelic language is still Oíche/Oidhche Shamhna. It is still the custom in some areas to set a place for the dead at the Samhain feast, and to tell tales of the ancestors on that night.
Traditionally, Samhain was time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter. This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock because it is when meat will keep since the freeze has come and also since summer grass is gone and free foraging is no longer possible.
Bonfires played a large part in the festivities celebrated down through the last several centuries, and up through the present day in some rural areas of the Celtic nations and the diaspora. Villagers were said to have cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. In the pre-Christian Gaelic world, cattle were the primary unit of currency and the center of agricultural and pastoral life. Samhain was the traditional time for slaughter, for preparing stores of meat and grain to last through the coming winter.
With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit its hearth from the common flame, thus bonding the families of the village together. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes the cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires, as well.
Gaelic custom of wearing costumes and masks, was an attempt to copy the evil spirits or placate them. In Scotland the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white. Candle lanterns (Gaelic: samhnag), carved from turnips were part of the traditional festival. Large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces, placed in windows to ward off evil spirits.
Guisers — men in disguise, were prevalent in 16th century in the Scottish countryside. Children going door to door "guising" (or "Galoshin" on the south bank of the lower Clyde) in costumes and masks carrying turnip lanterns, offering entertainment of various sorts in return for food or coins, was traditional in 19th century, and continued well into 20th century. At the time of mass transatlantic Irish and Scottish immigration that popularized Halloween in North America, Halloween in Ireland and Scotland had a strong tradition of guising and pranks.
Divination is a common folkloric practice that has also survived in rural areas. The most common uses were to determine the identity of one's future spouse, the location of one's future home, and how many children a person might have. Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often employed in these rituals. Apples were peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of the future spouse's name. Nuts were roasted on the hearth and their movements interpreted - if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in a glass of water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from how many birds appeared or the direction the birds flew.
So fellow pagans what are your plans to celebrate the mystical Samhain this year?