Long before Oct. 31 came to be associated with Disney princess costumes and fun-sized candy bars, it was the boisterous Celtic festival of Samhain (“sah-win”). Traditionally Samhain was the time the cattle-raising Celts brought their herds back from summer pastures and prepared for winter. Because the Celts believed that everything began in darkness, Samhain was a celebration of the new year that would begin with the time of rest nature imposed through the dark winter. At Samhain people came together at sacred sites to celebrate with great bonfires, feasting, drinking, and carousal. It was believed to be a “thin time,” when the veil between the world of humans and the world of spirits grew thin. In Scotland it was traditional for young men to run the boundaries of their farms with flaming torches to protect them from spirits that might cause mischief. In Ireland the protection and fertility of the tribe in the coming year was guaranteed by a ritual re-enactment of the sacred Sovereignty union of the Dagda and the Morrigan.
Prior to the introduction of Christianity, Samhain was celebrated at the time of the new moon in November and might go on for days, but when the regularized calendar was introduced, the festival was observed from the evening of Oct. 31 until sundown on Nov. 1. Our observance of Halloween comes from the Church’s efforts to absorb Samhain into the Christian calendar. The notion of the thinning veil between worlds that opened the human realm to spirits prompted the designation of Nov. 1 as All Saints Day and Nov. 2 All Souls Day. “Halloween” on Oct. 31 is the “Eve of All Hallows (Saints).”
Samhain invites us to attune ourselves to the cycles of the natural world and ritualize our blessings and our hopes for the year ahead. Many of the things we enjoy at this time of year—a walk in the woods, raking leaves, building a blazing fire—can become rituals if we enter them with intention. A meal prepared with the bounteous produce of autumn and shared with your family can be a meaningful ritual. You might want to celebrate the lives of departed loved ones by displaying their photographs with a few votive candles, speaking their names aloud as you light the candles and thanking them for being part of your life or lineage. If you planted a garden this year, Samhain is a good time to go into the garden to say words of appreciation such as, “Summer is gone, winter is coming. We have planted and we have watched the garden grow, we have weeded, and we have gathered the harvest. Now it is at its end.” You might wish to pour a libation of cider or wine on the ground as you say, “We thank the earth for all it has given us this season and we look forward to winter, a time of sacred darkness.” As you enter these days mindfully, other ways of ritualizing this sacred passage will likely bubble up in your imagination. Embrace them and celebrate gratefully.