Samhain: The History of Halloween

Samhain is the time when the dark phase of the year begins. It is the end of the agricultural cycle and the final harvest. Whatever left in the fields after Samhain now belongs to the spirits of nature. The time has come to prepare for the darkness that will come.

It is one of the two nights of spirits, the other is Beltaine. The fairy gods and spirits are particularly active this night. It is also one of the many moments of honoring and hosting dead ancestors. Prayers and foods get left on the doorsteps and the altar doors get left open and the extra chairs get put out.

Samhain celebrated the Celtic New Year. Samhain dates from an ancient festival of Celtic paganism. Halloween and the Christian festivity of All Saints are also influenced by it.

People split the year into two parts. The winter is geimhreadh. The beginning or New Year got marked by the Samonios/Samhain festival. Summer got called samradh whose beginning got marked by Beltane. The Celts got influenced by lunar cycles and stars that marked the flow of the agricultural year. It began with Samhain in November at the end of the harvest when the soil got prepared for the winter.

Oidhche Shamhna was the main celebration of the ancient Celtic calendar. It represented the last agricultural harvest. Today, in Ireland, OĆ­che Shamhna marks Halloween night. The bonfires have always played an important role in this party. The villagers used to throw the bones of slaughtered cattle into the fire. The cattle had a prominent role in the pre-Christian Gaelic world.

Samhain was a mythical ritual feast with orgies and breaking of traditional norms. There were rites of propitiation and fertilization. Ancient Irish Gaelic texts speak of sacrifices of first-born animals. Human sacrifices were also made, offered to the Cromm Cruaich idol.



An Irish legend says that all the people who died last year returned to the earth in search of new bodies. The rite was to extinguish the Sacred Fire on the altar and re-ignite the New Fire the following morning. This symbolized the arrival of the New Year. When the morning came, the Druids carried the fiery fire ashes to every family. The motive that pushed the Celts to extinguish the fire was not to discourage evil spirits.

But there are other customs of tales and legends. On Samhain night there were divinatory rituals. It concerned predictions of time, weddings, and fortune for the coming year. There were two rites that of dripping apples and that of peeling the apple. The diving of apples was a divination for a wedding. The first person to bite an apple would marry the following year.

Peeling the apple was a divination over the lifespan. The longer it was the piece of peeled apple without breaking it, the longer it would have been for the life of the buff. In Scotland on Samhain's night people buried stones in the earth with ash. In the morning if a stone had got smashed, it meant that the person who had buried it would die by the end of the year.

In Ireland, it was typical for families to prepare the colcannon, a dish typical of this event. The name comes from Irish and means spotted cabbage. It is a recipe made with mashed potatoes, chopped cabbage and onions, served hot with plenty of butter. Usually, inside it was a coin and the fortunate who found it had the privilege of keeping it.

The Church assigned new Christian meanings to the symbols associated with Samhain. In the 10th century AD, the tradition of celebrating the Day of Saints was thus consolidated. The church affirmed that the gods and other supernatural beings were diabolical. The spiritual forces with which people were in contact were the devil's manifestations. Thus, during Halloween, ghosts, skeletons, death, devil, and witches, appeared.

In America, they found the pumpkins that best fit to get carved over the onions. From that moment on, the traditional Halloween pumpkin or Jack O 'Lantern was born.