The History of Samhain (Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Dia de los Muertos)

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October 31, 2010 by The Perfectly Imperfect One

A Pentagram the symbol of Wiccans and Pagans alike

As many of you may know, I am Wiccan. Because Halloween is a big day in my religion, I thought I would give you the history of the day.

Samhain is known by most people as Halloween, but to Wiccans and Pagans, it is considered a Sabbat (sabath day, a holiday). This night is the night in which the veil between the living and the dead is the thinest. Some consider it a night which the spirits walk among the dead. For some Wiccans, rituals are done to celebrate the life of a loved one who has passed.

For me, my traditional ritual is to take an apple and other fruit and place outside on the northeast corner of my home as a gift to the spirits. A little known fact about an apple, if you cut it around the middle and open it up, it makes a star (or pentagram).

Samhain (pronounced sow-en) comes from the Gaelic word Samhuin. Samhain is the new year for the Wiccans/Pagans. On sunset on Samhain is the beginning of the Celtic New Year. This is the end of the harvesting season and saying goodbye to the old and begin to welcome the new.

Samhain dates back to the ancient Celts who lived 2,000 years ago. Contrary to what some may believe, it is not the celebration of the Celtic God of the dead.  The actual holiday begins at sunset on October 31, and goes through November 1.

During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of Wheel of Life.

During the day of October 31, families would keep the lights out and then go out to celebrate the end of the year, after the nightly celebration has ended, with the hearth fires lit, the families would place food and drink outside their doors to appease the roaming spirits who might play tricks on the family.

With the coming of Christianity in the 800s AD, the early Church in England tried to Christianize the old Celtic festivals. Pope Bonifice IV designated the 1st of November as “All Saints Day” honoring saints and martyrs. He also decreed October 31 as “All Hallows Eve” which later became Hallow’een.

Scholars today widely accept that the Pope was attempting to replace the earlier Celtic pagan festival with a church-sanctioned holiday. 200 years later, in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 “All Souls’ Day”, a day to honor the dead.

Trick-or-treating actually derives from the tradition of poor citizens begging for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. Dressing up for Halloween comes from dressing up for the sacred bonfire during the original Celtic festival.

By the 1990s, Americans have made Halloween one of the largest commercial holidays, spending an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween costumes, accessories, decorations, and pumpkins.

The colors orange and black are traditional for this Sabbat. Black represents the time of darkness after the death of the God (who is represented by fire and the sun) during an earlier sabbat known as Lughnasadh and the waning of light during the day. Orange represents the awaiting of the dawn during Yule (Dec 21 to Jan 21) when the God is reborn.

The history of Jack O’Lanterns:

One thought about Jack O’Lanterns is that you would light a candle for the dead to follow as they walked the earth. These candles were placed in hallowed out gourds and put on the ground to light the way. Another thought about where it came from was Christianized Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack” The story is that Jack basically screwed over the Devil in a pub by tricking him, and so Jack was left to walk the earth carrying a hallowed out turnip with a lit piece of coal for all eternity.



So there it is people. The history of the day. Hope you are all safe and happy this Samhain.


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