Samhain: Facts, Beliefs & Folklore

Halloween:  hallow=holy  een= evening

The Celtic Festival of Samhain celebrated in Scotland circa October 2008
The Celtic Festival of Samhain celebrated in Scotland circa October 2008

All Hallow’s Eve or All Saint’s Eve (whatever you call it):  it is the old Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, pronounced sow (as in cow)-en.  Celebrated in Ireland and ancient Britain this was the mark of the New Year, the time that summer was ending and the onset of winter beginning.

A magical time when the veil between the worlds of the living and dead was at it’s thinnest.   It was believed that the dead revisited their homes and the fairies came out to roam.  Some say Samhain was the God of Death but there is no evidence to back this theory.  The Celts didn’t believe in demons, instead it was fairies that were the makers of mischief.

In order to stave off any mischief from occurring during the evening of Samhain, home owners would set out a “treat” of milk or food in hope of deterring any “tricks” being played upon their household.  A small meal would also be left for a deceased relative who came visiting.  In the 19th century the Catholic Church made Nov. 1st All Saints Day, thus the pagan festival of Samhain merged with the Catholic holiday and became All Hallow’s Eve (the night before the holy day).  Eventually people began to dress up to deceive the spirits and therefore go out during All Hallow’s Eve to walk freely among the spirits and perhaps collect the “treats” left for the dead?!

 

Vintage Irish Halloween art
The legend of Stingy Jack gave birth to the Jack-O-Lantern

Irish folklore tells the story of Stingy Jack who tricked the Devil not once but twice.  After being tricked into captivity by Jack a second time the Devil agreed not to take Jack’s soul when he died.  However upon his demise Heaven didn’t want him either, so Jack asked the Devil to take him but since a promise was made the Devil sent him on his way into the night with a burning piece of coal to light his way.  Jack carved out a turnip to hold his coal and has been wandering ever since.  Folks began to call this lost soul “Jack of the lantern” and later shortened it to “Jack O’Lantern.”  Later the Scots and Irish began carving scary faces into turnips and potatoes and set them in front of their homes on All Hallow’s Eve to keep away the evil spirits.  When the Irish began immigrating to the U.S. during the potato famine they brought along their traditions.  Pumpkins which are a native fruit to the U.S. became an excellent replacement for turnips.
 
 
 
 
 
Another thing associated with Halloween is dunking for apples.  That was actually part of divination rituals performed at the end of the year to see what the future would bring.  “Ducking for Apples” foretold marriage.  The first person to bite one would be the first to marry in the new year.  Another divination ritual was peeling an apple, the longer the peel before breaking off the longer your life.

So remember with Halloween soon approaching, leave a little something out for the visiting relatives!

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