Samhain, also known as "Samain", "Hallowe'en", "All Hallows Eve", "Mallowmas", "All Saints Eve", "All Soul's Eve", "Sauin" on the Isle of Man, "Samhuinn" in Scots Gaelic, "Nos Galan-gaeof" (the Night of the Winter Calends) in Wales, and the "Witches' New Year" (contemporary), is traditionally celebrated on the night of October 31st. Samhain (pronounced Sowen) is one of the original Celtic fire festivals and means "Summer's End" -when the sun's power wanes, and the strength of the gods of darkness, winter, and the underworld grows great.
Background on Samhain
Samhain is the first and, in some ways, most important of the great Celtic feasts. It is remembered throughout the Celtic territories as the end and the beginning of the year's cycle, and a time when the gates between the worlds stand open. In the agricultural year, Samhain is the season during which herds of cattle were culled. A few were kept for breeding stock while many were butchered to sustain the clans through the winter. Thus the season between Samhain and midwinter was a time of feasting and plenty.
The change from the light to dark half of the year meant that the powers of the spirit world were especially active. Common folk considered the night of Samhain a time to keep to their halls and seek the protection of the gods and goddesses as they enjoyed the bounty of the passing year. Some tales tell of raiders from the otherworld who every year burn the hall of Erin's king.
Of course the feast of Samhain was Christianized as the feast of All Saints and All Souls by the church in the Middle Ages. It is commonly assumed that this reflects a Pagan custom of honoring the ancestors and heroes at Samhain that fits well with the agricultural meaning of the season, and is universally accepted in modern Paganism. Mythically there are several patterns proper to Samhain. One key tale has the Dagda mating with the Morrigan, their loving creating a fertile river. Another refers to Donn, the first Ancestor of Erin, who gathers the year's dead ones and on Samhain sends them to the Isles of Summer in the West.
All these strands combine in the modern Celtic Neopagan holy day of Samhain. It is celebrated as Harvest Home, when the year's labor is ended and we enjoy the fruits of our effort. It is the feast of the dead, when we honor our ancestors, the heroes, and those who have passed in the past year. It is the gate time, when works of magic and spirit-contact are especially strong. It is New Year's night, when the old passes away and the new begins in darkness.
The Festival of Samhain marks the ending and beginning of the Celtic Year. Samhain (pronounced "Sow-in") comes from the Irish Gaelic and means "Summers End". There is a great deal of distortion as to the true meaning of the Holiday, fostered in large part by religious propaganda perpetuated by overly superstitious fundamentalists.
Sometimes one will hear of an "Evil God" named "Samhain", but such a deity never existed anywhere in Celtic lands or Europe for that matter. It was a literary fiction masquerading as scholarship from the early nineteenth century. Fables of Druids leaving "Jack-o-lanterns" at the homes of families who have helped procure a sacrifice for "Samhain" (or Satan) are likewise scurrilous at best.
Samhain can be viewed a number of ways.
First, it was an important agricultural observance, when the final harvest was taken and the folk were now dependent on stored food, hunting and slaughtering of animals for survival. Herds were culled to eliminate the weak and unnecessary and ensure that the limited amount of food would go around for the next six months. In this aspect, Samhain is a holiday of Plenty and feasting, laying in a layer of fat before the winter, and gathering together for safety and protection.
The harvest being over, the seeds for the next years crops are planted. They'll lie dormant until Oimelc (Feb. 1st) when they will begin to sprout. By Beltain (May 1st) they will have shown growth, and it is this time of year that is concerned with the fertility of the coming crops. Those same crops will be harvested by Samhain, and the cycle begins anew.
In present times the importance of this part of the festival has diminished for most people living in this country, but you should try to see this from the stand- point of a tribal people for whom a bad season meant facing a long winter of famine in which many would not survive to the spring.
Samhain is also a time when the veil separating our world, the mortal realm, and the world of the Gods and spirits becomes thin. As such, it is a good time to commune with the recently departed before they continue their journey from death to the "Summerland" - the realm of the Gods. There they can enjoy an eternal paradise of feasting, joy and plenty, until they are ready to cross back over to our realm and become incarnate beings again.
...Death was never very far away, yet to die was not the tragedy it is in modern times. What was of great importance to these people was to die with honour and to live in the memory of the clan and be honoured at the great feast Fleadh nan Mairbh (Feast of the Dead) which took place on Samhain Eve.
Likewise, the separation between past, present and future becomes blurred, allowing for glimpses not only into the realm of the ever Young, but of things which have not yet come to pass. Divination has been historically popular at Samhain, from the Irish myths; to children casting nuts into a fire and kenning their future sweetheart by the way they pop and burn.
Samhain, as the beginning and ending of the yearly cycle, can be viewed as any other "New Years" celebration.
So as this Samhain approaches, what is ending in you? What do you have inside that it is time to let go of? No healing is complete until you get beyond recovery. Use Samhain to take the thirteenth step: Transformation. In the Tarot, the thirteenth card of the Major Arcane is Death, and it is ruled by Scorpio. Samhain occurs in Scorpio. The card of Death doesn't necessarily mean physical death (though it can mean that), but more productively, it can be seen as an inevitable heavy change or transformation. Something old must be gotten rid of to make room for something new to be able to come in. Use the magic of this time to say good-bye to an old habit or addiction, an old relationship, or anything else it is time to leave behind.
Samhain is the time when we connect with the vital forces of nature and make ourselves ready for the long descent into winter. It is a time to reflect on that which we've brought into our lives, and that which we need for the times to come. Connecting with our roots and examining the directions we need to grow. We feast with the ancestors and ensure the continuing vitality of our people, be it ourselves, our family or the community in which we dwell.