Updated: Feb 22
“May the winds be gentle, may the bees be blessed,
may water flow free and clean.
May cold pass to heat in even measure,
for each right month of the year.”
– Samhain Blessing
Samhain (pronounced sow-win or sav-ven) is Gaelic generally meaning ‘summer’s end’. You’ll find it referred to several other names by many modern-day pagans, depending on personal preference and Celtic roots.
The Wheel of the Year is comprised of four Sabbats (the equinoxes and solstices) and four seasonal cross-quarter festivals. In the northern hemisphere, Samhain is the halfway point between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. Even though the actual astronomical midpoint is closer to November 6, most celebrate Samhain on October 31st.
Samhain is the third and final of the three harvest festivals, marking the moment the Wheel has come full circle. The crops have been gathered and the herd animals have been brought back from grazing. We bid farewell to Sun’s waning light and spend more time indoors as temperatures grow cold. Now is the time to focus on the preparations for the coming winter.
The four cross-quarter festivals are always celebrated with the element of fire. Celebrations by the ancients are legendary and although traditions vary greatly, they shared many themes and rituals in common. On the the first frost after the Full Moon in October, villagers allowed their hearth fires to die out. They gathered to dance, feast, and share stories as they celebrated the welcoming of the "dark half of the year". No fire festival was complete without a community bonfire, undoubtedly blessed by an elder or wise woman, and placed in the centre of the revelry. As the celebration came to an end, each family lit a torch from the sacred Samhain fire, to carry back and relight their own hearth. This was crucial as the ancients considered it a sin to relight the hearth fire any other way.
The Celts affirmed that on the night of Samhain, the veil between the world of the dead and that of the living was at its thinnest. They believed that at this time the dead could rise out of their graves to wander feely on Earth. This is not as unwelcome as it may sound. Samhain is a time to honour our ancestors and loved ones who have passed. As time went on, it wasn’t just the dead who were able to come through, but also fairies, changelings, goblins, and of course, witches. This is also where the tradition of costumes first began as people dressed up in disguise to fool mischievous spirits.
As you may have already gathered, the origin of Halloween can be traced back to Samhain. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, one by one of the pagan festivals were replaced or renamed by the church in an attempt at conversion. One of the ways this was done was to rename the pagan holiday. Pope Boniface, in the fifth century, had dedicated May 13th as a day to honour saints and martyrs. In the ninth-century, Pope Gregory moved the observance to the same time as the pagan Samhain, dedicating November 1st as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowsmas, (now All Saint’s Day) in observation for ascended Souls. Later, the church added All Soul’s Day on November 2nd, in recognition of Souls who remain in purgatory. Over time, the night before November 1st became known as “All Hallows’ Eve” which was eventually abbreviated to Halloween.
Because they occur on the same day, many people believe Samhain and Halloween are the same thing; they are not. Some pagans celebrate Samhain on October 31st while others prefer to use the date of the actual astrological midpoint. Still others prefer to observe Samhain on the Full Moon closest to the date of the Sabbat. Today, Halloween is primarily a secular, family-oriented holiday, whereas Samhain continues to be a deeply spiritual celebration, with a strong focus on honoring departed loved ones. It is a night of magic and wonder, a time for remembering the cycle of death and rebirth; and honouring those that have passed before us.
Some modern ways you can celebrate Samhain :
Get outside and go for a nature walk. Take your time to appreciate the trek with all of your five sences. Autumn is a symbol for Samhain, reflecting nature’s cycles and rhythms.
Carve pumpkins and dry roast the seeds.
Decorate your home and outdoor spaces using the colours of Samhain – all the colours of Autumn – rich orange, yellow and rusty reds.
Set out photos and momentos of loved ones.
Have a bonfire with friends and family – share memories and stories; sing when the Spirit takes you.
Prepare a meal using seasonal ingredients - pumpkins, squash, and gourds, oh my!
Anything with apples – crafts, cooking, baking, eating, yum!
Candles – must have candles – black, orange, and white.
Watch movies that explore the themes of magick (Practical Magick); life after death (Dead Like Me); crossing the veil – (P.S. I Love You); and alternate worlds (Midnight in Paris).
Samhain not only ends the pagan year, it is also the beginning of a new one. As nights grow longer the busy-ness of summer’s hustle and bustle comes to an end. The Autumn season brings in a time of introspection. This is the time to find a quiet spot, meditate and reflect on the past year. What, if anything, has stopped you from reaching your goals? Go deep. Write whatever that may be - fear, anxiety, fatigue, loss - on the stationary of your choice. Then burn it. As you watch the flames engulf the paper, visualize the heavy energy associated with those worries disintegrate into ashes. Breathe in deeply and as you exhale, honour the energy of the lessons you learned along the way.