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Halloween (hălˌəwēnˈ, hälˌ–), October 31, the eve of All Saints' Day, observed with traditional games and customs. The word comes from medieval England's All Hallows' eve [Old Eng. hallow=saint]. Many of these customs are believed to predate Christianity, going back to Celtic practices associated with November 1, which was Samhain (säˈwĭn), the beginning of winter and the Celtic new year. Spirits, or fairies, were said to roam the earth on this evening, playing tricks on human beings to mark the season of diminishing sunlight. Bonfires were lit and offerings were made of food and drink. It has been suggested that people would disguise themselves as one of the roaming spirits, to avoid persecution by them or to accept offerings for them. Survivals of these early practices can be found in countries of Celtic influence today, such as the United States where children go from door to door in costumes demanding “trick or treat.”


See studies by Ruth Kelly (1919, repr. 2014) and N. Rogers (2002).

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Type of Holiday: Ancient, Religious (Neopagan)
Date of Observation: November 1
Where Celebrated: British Isles
Symbols and Customs: Bonfires, Harp, Swan
Related Holidays: All Souls' Day, Beltane, Halloween, Lughnasa, Mabon, Samhain, Summer Solstice, Winter Solstice, Vernal Equinox


Celtic peoples lived in Ireland, Scotland, England, and northern France from around B . C . E . until around 100 C . E ., when the Romans conquered most of Celtic Europe. Little is definitely known about ancient Celtic religion. The Celts themselves left sparse written accounts. Julius Caesar, who led the Romans into Celtic lands, wrote of his impressions of the people, as did other ancient Greco-Roman writers.

During the 1960s the modern Neopagan and Wiccan movements emerged in Great Britain, the United States, and other English-speaking countries. They follow a nature-oriented religion loosely linked to ancient Celtic and other beliefs and inspired by old European folk practices. They celebrate eight sabbats, known as the eight spokes of the wheel of the year, which include Samhain as well as SUMMER SOLSTICE, WINTER SOLSTICE, VERNAL EQUINOX, BELTANE, IMBOLC, LUGHNASA, and MABON.

Samhain (pronounced sah-win) is an Irish word meaning "summer's end." Along with IMBOLC (February 1), BELTANE (May 1), and LUGHNASA (August 1), it was one of the four major Celtic festivals observed in ancient times. Samhain was the Celtic NEW YEAR'S DAY, a time of transition between the old and new year when the souls of those who had died during the previous year gathered to travel to the land of the dead. The festival actually began at sundown on October 31, and many of the symbols now associated with HALLOWEEN-including witches, ghosts, and goblins-derived from the pagan belief that the gates to the underworld were opened on this day and that the spirits of the dead were free to roam the earth. Since Samhain was also a harvest festival, people made offerings of fruits and vegetables to honor the dead.

Some of the customs associated with Samhain-and later with HALLOWEEN- can be traced back to the ancient Roman festival dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of fruit, held at around the same date. When the Romans conquered Britain, they brought these customs with them. The tradition of bobbing for apples, for example, probably comes from the Roman games played during Pomona's festival.

The early Christian missionaries particularly disliked Samhain's emphasis on the supernatural, and they tried to convince people that the spirits of the dead were actually delusions sent by the devil. Due largely to their efforts, the Celtic underworld eventually became associated with the Christian hell, and the concept of honoring the benevolent spirits of the dead gradually gave way to fears about evil spirits and witchcraft.

Although Samhain is widely regarded as the Celtic New Year's Day, some scholars believe that the Celts actually began their year in midsummer, somewhere between BELTANE and LUGHNASA.



In pagan times, it is possible that human sacrifices occurred around Samhain. All fires had to be extinguished, and they could only be rekindled from the main bonfire. It is still common in parts of Ireland and Scotland to extinguish the peat fires on HALLOWEEN and relight them from the bonfires that burn on the hilltops.

Bonfires were also a way of illuminating the path for the souls of the dead as they wandered from the world of the living back to the Celtic underworld. Some people hoped that their fires would scare off any spirits that meant them harm.

In addition to lighting bonfires, special lanterns were carved out of gourds or turnips. These were meant to symbolize the life-giving energy of the sun and to encourage its regeneration at a time of year when the days were growing shorter. Although carving and displaying pumpkins at HALLOWEEN is often assumed to be an American tradition, it is likely that the custom goes back much further.


An old Irish legend associated with Samhain tells the story of the annual destruction of Tara, the magical hill which was also the ancestral seat of the gods. Every year at Samhain a goblin called Aillen played the harp so skillfully that everyone was charmed into sleep, allowing him to set fire to the palace. A hero named Finn finally overcame Aillen's magic by holding the sharp point of a spear against his own forehead. The pain kept him awake while everyone else fell asleep.

As a symbol, the harp is regarded as a bridge between heaven and earth. This is why heroes often requested that a harp be buried with them, to facilitate their access to heaven. Along with the SWAN , the harp is considered one of the essential symbols of the journey from the world of the living to the world of the dead.


According to Irish folklore, a god named Oenghus fell in love with a young girl named Caer (also known as Rhiannon), who was capable of taking on the form of a swan at the festival of Samhain. Because her father would not let Oenghus woo Caer, the only way he could be with her was to wait for the festival and then transform himself into a swan. United at last, the pair flew three times around a lake, putting everyone else into a dream-sleep that lasted three days and three nights, giving the lovers an opportunity to fly off to the god's palace.

Along with the HARP , the swan is symbolically associated with the journey to the land of the dead, and it is often shown harnessed to funerary wagons. The festival of Samhain may have celebrated, through the legend of people and gods shapeshifting into swans, the transformation of life from one state to another. There is also some evidence that swan-dances were held at Samhain.


Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. King, John. The Celtic Druids' Year: Seasonal Cycles of the Ancient Celts. London: Blandford, 1995. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Samhain (pronounced sow-'n to rhyme with "cow") is the name for the Witchcraft Greater Sabbat that falls on November Eve. It is popularly known by non-Witches as Hallowe'en—the eve of All Hallows on the Christian calendar. It is the old pagan new year—the end of the growing season and the start of the winter season when, long ago, humankind had to go back to hunting animals for food. The Witchcraft year ends and begins at Samhain. There are variations of its spelling, as with many Wiccan names; Scottish Witches, for example, call it Samhuinn and the Irish Oiche Shamhna.

Samhain is a time when Witches believe that the veil between the worlds is thin. This, then, is a time when it can be relatively easy to communicate with the spirits of loved ones who have died during the previous year. Many Witches believe that the dead come back to celebrate the sabbat with them. This is the idea that gave rise to the stories of ghosts at Hallowe'en. It is also from this idea of communication with the dead that Samhain is considered an especially good time to do divination about the future. In the old days, it would have been of critical interest to divine the nature of the coming winter.

The Samhain feast was and is a big one. This was the time when the herds and the flocks had to be thinned, leaving only enough sheep and cattle essential to continuance to be fed during the harsh winter months. The rest would be slaughtered, their meat salted and stored. The Samhain feast therefore included plenty of fresh meat cooked on the sacred Samhain fire. Such fires, known as Samhnagan, blazed from all the mountain tops, marking visual lines of pagan association across the length and breadth of Britain and much of Western Europe. Such balefires burned at all the major sabbat dates.

The spiritual emphasis is the Goddess throughout the summer, and at Samhain, that emphasis shifts to the God. This turnabout is emphasized by the "crowning" of the High Priest in that role. He is crowned with a horned or antlered headpiece at the Samhain Sabbat celebration.

Apples and nuts became associated with Samhain from the ancient Roman festival of Pomona, which took place on November 1 and which celebrated the ripening of the fruits. The apple was the Celtic Silver Bough and the fruit of the underworld, symbolizing love, fertility, wisdom, and divination. The game of applebobbing originated with this festival, combining the acknowledging of the ripened fruit and the desire to foresee the future. Apples are floated in a tub of water and must be seized and pulled out using only the teeth. The apple is then peeled, with the peel being kept in one long strip. Throwing the apple peel over the shoulder, it should land in the shape of the initial of one's future spouse.

Pliny gives an account of a Druid festival at this time, and of the cutting of the mistletoe from the oak tree. It was cut with a golden sickle and caught in a white cloak, since it was believed it must never touch the ground.

In the seventeenth century on the island of Lewis, off the northwest coast of Scotland, a rite was carried out at Samhain that was a curious blend of Christian and Pagan belief. Beginning and ending at St. Mulvay's Church, it involved someone wading into the sea and chanting to the sea-god Shony. The words of the chant were: O God of the Sea Put weed in the drawing wave To enrich the ground, To shower us with food.

A cup of ale was offered as an inducement for a good crop of seaweed, used to fertilize the fields the following year. While the one person was placating the god, another extinguished the altar candle in the church. The festival continued on through the night, with a great deal of singing and dancing together, and drinking ale and wine to the gods. The following morning everyone would gather on the shore and invoke the god Briannuil, praying for a strong wind to blow the seaweed ashore.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.

Samhain (Samain)

November 1
This ancient Celtic harvest festival was celebrated at the beginning of winter. According to Celtic folklore, this was the day when the souls of the dead and other supernatural entities gathered and would have access to the human realm—thus giving rise to the fears about ghosts and goblins that we now associate with Halloween, or Samhain Eve.
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 741
BkHolWrld-1986, Oct 31, Nov 1
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 202, 968
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 191
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 604
OxYear-1999, p. 441
RelHolCal-2004, p. 275
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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But the pagan roots of Halloween are well documented, being rooted in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which came at summer's end.
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Halloween (Ireland, Canada, UK, US and Europe) Reformation Day (Slovenia and Protestant Church) Samhain (Northern hemisphere)/Beltane (Southern hemisphere) begins at sunset (Gaels, Welsh people and Neopagans)
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