Samhain: Pagans, Wiccans celebrate harvest festival

People gathering around candles, performing a ritual

Neopagans participate in a Samhain ritual that honors the dead. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 31: Cook up some acorn squash and apples, make a toast with mulled wine and learn the root of some of Halloween’s most ancient traditions, on Samhain. (You may also want to read our extensive column on the three days of Christian festivals that were established to eclipse Samhain.)

Originally a Gaelic festival that marked the end of harvest season and ushered in winter, Samhain is now celebrated by Wiccans and Pagans as a festival of darkness. In contrast to Beltane, which embraces the light and fertility of spring, Samhain rituals center around the spirits of the dead—both friendly and unfriendly. (Wikipedia has details.) From the earliest days, this time of year has been seen as the point at which the veil between this world and the afterworld is at its thinnest point.

Born of a pastoral people, Samhain began in the oral traditions of Irish mythology; it wasn’t until the Middle Ages when visiting Christian monks began penning some of the tales. Several essential events occurred annually on Samhain, such as taking stock of herds and ushering livestock into winter pastures. As even the earliest cultures believed that spirits could access our world most easily at this time of year, bonfires were lit to protect and cleanse people, livestock and pastures. Feasts were prepared, and the spirits of deceased ancestors were invited into the home with altars. Evil spirits were kept away with “guising” (costuming to fool the spirits), and turnip lanterns were often set in windows to scare evil spirits or to represent spiritual beings—a custom that likely evolved into the modern jack-o-lantern.

Several sites in Ireland are still associated with Samhain, such as Oweynagat—the “cave of the cats”—where otherworldly beings were said to emerge. The Hill of Ward in County Meath is rumored to have been the site of large Samhain gatherings and bonfires.

WICCANS, PAGANS & A MODERN SAMHAIN

Today’s Wiccans observe Samhain as a Sabbat, while Pagans—including Neopagans and Celtic Reconstructionists—attempt to observe its rituals as close as possible to their original form. (Learn more from Wicca.com.) The 19th and 20th centuries have brought a revival in ancient pagan festivals and customs, with an upsurge in visitation to age-old sites. Traditional colors include black, orange and white; foods include turnips, apples, gourds, nuts, mulled wines and beef; herbs include allspice and sage.

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