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A Brief History of Samhain—A European Celebration of the Season

What we know and love as the Halloween holiday is the modern evolution of Samhain, which is the Celtic celebration of summer’s end. Celtic lore separates the year into two halves: the light and the dark, and Samhain is the official start of the dark segment. It was believed that the gods and ancestors drew near to the earth during this important time of transition. 

Celebrating the Samhain Holiday 

An annual feast was an important Samhain tradition, to which the dearly departed were invited and welcomed. A special cake and various other dishes were prepared specifically and only for the ancestors, which would not be touched or consumed by the living. Windows and doors were left ajar to encourage the spirits to come and go freely. 

In addition to the feasts at home, tribe members extinguished their hearths and gathered at the center of their communities where a central blaze was lit to invite the gods and ancestors. People brought gifts and special mementos to cast into the fire as a sacrifice. Then, each family left with a brand from the new fire to reignite their home’s hearth. 

Honoring the Ancestors 

While young people were generally focused on lively celebrations and traditional Samhain ritual games, the older members of the families took responsibility for entertaining the ancestors. This primarily consisted of recalling the events of the previous year. Doing so served two important purposes: it helped to process negative events to prevent them from happening again as well as invited the ancestors to continue being part of the community.  

How Samhain Became All Saints Day 

After centuries of Samhain rituals and fires lighting the countryside of what is now Ireland, changing religious and political influences began to take hold. With Christianity on the rise, pagan celebrations such as Samhain and Bealtaine (the springtime holiday welcoming the light part of the year) were gradually replaced by the Catholic All Saints Day.  

Incorporating Traditions Old & New 

This year, you can tap into some ancient roots by implementing elements of the original Samhain holiday. Get together with some friends and reminisce about the important happenings of the past year. What did we learn? What would our parents or grandparents have thought of these events? What do we want our children and grandchildren to know about the past and bring into the future? 

Next week, we’ll examine the traditions of Dia De Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Stay tuned!