Samhain, the traditional Celtic holiday, literally means “summer’s end.” The Celts divided the year into two seasons, representing light and dark. The first day of each season held a celebration, with Beltane on May 1st and Samhain on November 1st.
Samhain was an important festival, as it welcomed new beginnings and a new year for the Celts. It also symbolized a union or communality between people. Bonfires were lit by people within a village. While the bonfire blazed, villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family would then light its hearth from the common flame of the bonfire, bonding the families of a village together.
Samhain Eve was a time of reflection for the Celts, and a time for honoring the dead. This particular time of year signified the final harvest, a time of gathering and preparing for winter. Often winter was a time of famine and some would not survive through the long months ahead. Samhain was a way of honoring those who had died, a celebration of the spirit remembered.
It was a common belief that the “veil” between the world of the living and the world of the dead was thinnest on the eve of Samhain. In Modern times, many have twisted this thought to evil intent, though its origin is much more honorable. The dead could return on this one night to the places where they had lived, and food and entertainment were provided in their honor. This symbolized a village existing in harmony with its past, present and future.
This also led to the tradition of lighting a single candle in a window, to light the way for ancestors to find their way home. Food offerings were also left on doorsteps for the spirits (which led to our modern “trick or treating”).
It was the Romans who added their “Feast of the Dead” to the celebration of Samhain. The Christians destabilized the holiday by introducing “All Saint’s Day” on November 1st, and re-naming October 31st to All Hallow’s Eve, which later became Hallowe’en. For Christians, All Saints Day celebrates the spirits in Heaven and Purgatory. It became customary to bang pots and pans together on the eve of All Saint’s Day, to let the souls in Hell know they weren’t forgotten.
Samhain is also a major celebration of Wiccans, one of their eight holy Sabbats. For Wiccans, it is also a time of celebrating the past and the future to come. Many Pagans celebrate the New Year at this time.
Though the holiday has changed over the years, its intent remains clear – it is a celebration of respect for the dead and a celebration of the new beginning that is to come. It is a holiday that commemorates the togetherness of a community.