Samhain is the third harvest, marking the end of the light half of the year and beginning the dark in the Celtic traditions. The name has two possible sources – Samana for the Aryan God of Death and Samhraidreadh – Gaelic for “summer’s end”. The Celts use this point for the New Year because of the measurements of the sun by the ancient standing stones in Britain and Ireland. It is also because of the end of summer and beginning of winter in their tradition. In European traditions, it is when the old god dies and the crone goddess begins her mourning.

It is observed worldwide by various cultures in similar though different ways (though not under the same name). It appears to be common that at this time of year is when the veils between the realms are thin and communication and interaction with the dead is easier. Even though this is not an evil time there may be spirits of ill intent about, so it is wise to make proper preparations and protections before contacting the ancestors and honored dead. Not all faeries, gods, spirits, and dead are benevolent, kind, loving beings; they do have their own personalities, agendas, and wills. The trend to think that all spirits are out for our good and worship is not wise to fall into. It could lead to some unpleasant experiences.

As the third of the harvest festivals, the harvest was to be completed by this time. No harvesting was to be done after this night because it would bring bad luck or perhaps infertility. The final harvest was left to the faeries and spirits and the Gods. This is echoed in cultures around the world.

Of all the Eight days, this is the one that the Church took great pains to discredit the most. It must have been highly feared or the people must have had the greatest investment in it. For the Church has greatly demonized it and created the worst imagery around it. The horror stories of wicked witches in black hats and robes (common dress in middle ages by the way), the use of brooms, spells, stirring cauldrons, black cats, demons walking about, etc all becoming set in Christian mythology and eventually cemented, even if in parody, in today’s celebrations. People have accepted these lies as the tradition around the time instead of its true honored ways.

Customs and Traditions

The stirring cauldron arose from the use of the household cooking pot. It is also linked to the Celtic belief that all souls return to the Cauldron of the Mother to await rebirth, in which she is stirring it constantly.

Day of The Dead. The custom of honoring the dead is practiced in societies worldwide where ancestors are still honored, worshipped and communicated with – even amongst the Christian influenced. Traditions include leaving out food, picnics in the cemeteries, lighting candles on the walks to show them to their homes, dances in skeleton costumes or other lavish dress.

Bonfires. These were lit on hillsides to help contain the God energy as well as light the way for the ancestors to the clans, warding off evil, proclaiming the wish for light to return in the new year, and purifying the lands and winter stores. Animals were sacrificed at this time, then prepared for winter stores and eaten at the feasts.

Jack-o-Lanterns. The most well known symbol of the season. This is at least 2,000 years old. They were not made of pumpkins originally either, as pumpkin is a new world vegetable. They were originally faces carved in turnips to be carried about to scare away evil spirits that may be following the dead. Eventually, the practice migrated to gourds and the pumpkin. Heads were carved because the Celts considered the head the most important part of a person. It was the seat of the immortal soul and the place where knowledge and the person’s essence were stored. Because of this, it was believed that those attributes (strength, honor etc) could be used as a protective force.

Masks. Masks were used at various times for magical purposes. And possibly the precursor to make up. They have been used in all cultures (as well as other body adornments and clothing) in ritual to invoke animal or totem energies, to raise power, or to imitate deities.

Broom or Besom. The broom has been a part of magical use more dominate in the Middle Ages. It was used for protection, blessings, and often replaced the staff or wand in workings. The rise in its use was because it was considered a household tool and not presentable as evidence in trials during the witch-hunts.