When is Samhain: October 31
Samhain pronunciation: SOW-in, SAH-vin, or SOW-een
Themes: death, rebirth, divination, honoring ancestors, introspection, benign mischief, revelry
Also known as: Samhuin, Oidhche Shamhna, Halloween, Third Harvest, Day of the Dead, Feast of the Dead (Félie Na Marbh), Shadowfest, Ancestor Night, Feile Moingfinne (Snow Goddess), Winter Nights, Old Hallowmas, Calan Gaeaf
Greek Wicca: Demeter learns of the abduction of Her daughter Persephone, and vows to let nothing grow on Earth - killing off humans and losing the Olympians Their worshippers. Symbol: The lit Torch.
The third and final harvest festival on the Wheel of the Year is Samhain, observed on October 31. This Sabbat marks the end of the growing season and the beginning of Winter, which must be prepared for now in earnest. Herbs are dried for winter storage, fruits and vegetables are canned and preserved, and root vegetables are dug up and stored so they may nourish us through the cold months. The word “Samhain” comes from the old Irish and is thought by many to translate as “Summer’s end.”
While the cycles of life and death are implicitly recognized at every Sabbat, Samhain is when the necessary role of death is formally honored. The nights grow noticeably longer with each day. The God retreats now into the shadows of the dark season, symbolically dying back to the Earth before being reborn again at Yule. Many Wiccans and other Pagans consider this to be the most important day on the Wheel, a time when the veil between the spirit world and the mundane world is at its thinnest. Our ancestors and loved ones on the Other Side are said to be more easily able to visit with us and make their presence known at this time.
Samhain is arguably the most visible Sabbat in the mainstream world, thanks to the parallel holiday of Halloween. Many of the Halloween traditions celebrated in contemporary cultures today have grown out of customs dating back to pagan times. As far back as ancient Greece, people were leaving offerings of food to their ancestors, which is echoed in the modern tradition of trick-or-treating. The practice of leaving root vegetables, hollowed out with lighted candles inside, to guide spirits visiting on Earth ultimately led to today’s jack-o-lanterns. Witches, of course, have always been part of mainstream Halloween lore. And although they have almost always been presented as “evil” caricatures with no resemblance to the real thing, there’s still a lingering association between the spirit of Halloween and the real power of a Witch.
Samhain (/ˈsɑːwɪn, ˈsaʊɪn/, Irish: [ˈsˠəuɪnʲ], Scottish Gaelic: [ˈs̪ãũ.ɪɲ]; Manx: Sauin [ˈsoːɪnʲ]) is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or "darker-half" of the year. In the northern hemisphere, it is held on 1 November, but with celebrations beginning on the evening of 31 October, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. This is about halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. It is one of the four quarter days associated with Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man (where it is called 'Sauin'). A similar festival was held by the Brittonic Celtic people, called Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall, and Kalan Goañv in Brittany.
Samhain is believed to have Celtic pagan origins, and some Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with the sunrise at the time of Samhain. It is first mentioned in the earliest Irish literature, from the 9th century, and is associated with many important events in Irish mythology. The early literature says Samhain was marked by great gatherings and feasts, and was when the ancient burial mounds were open, which were seen as portals to the Otherworld. Some of the literature also associates Samhain with bonfires and sacrifices.
The festival did not begin to be recorded in detail until the early modern era. It was when cattle were brought down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered. As at Beltaine, special bonfires were lit. These were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers, and there were rituals involving them. Like Beltaine, Samhain was a liminal or threshold festival, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld thinned, meaning the Aos Sí (the 'spirits' or 'fairies') could more easily come into our world. Most scholars see the Aos Sí as remnants of pagan gods. At Samhain, they were appeased with offerings of food and drink, to ensure the people and their livestock survived the winter. The souls of dead kin were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality, and a place was set at the table for them during a Samhain meal. Mumming and guising were part of the festival from at least the early modern era, whereby people went door-to-door in costume reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes may have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí. Divination was also a big part of the festival and often involved nuts and apples. In the late 19th century, John Rhys and James Frazer suggested it was the "Celtic New Year", but this is disputed.
In the 9th century, the Church had shifted the date of All Saints' Day to 1 November, while 2 November later became All Souls' Day. Over time, it is believed that Samhain and All Saints'/All Souls' influenced each other, and eventually syncretised into the modern Halloween. Folklorists have used the name 'Samhain' to refer to Gaelic 'Halloween' customs up until the 19th century.
Since the later 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Samhain, or something based on it, as a religious holiday.