Ancient Samhain Festival Burns Brightly at Halloween

By C. Austin

A companion article discusses some ideas for how to celebrate Samhain.

Spent sunflowers rustle in unison with the bleached cornstalks outside my window. Their bony stems and withered leaves mimic the stark silhouettes of trees rapidly losing their vestments of red, yellow and brown. Autumn passes away in the skittering leaves that fly just out of reach, like so many summer days.

Oidche Shamhna, "the night of Samhain," approaches. The fire that lights the night on October 31 crackles brilliantly with disorder signaling harvest's end, the end of autumn and the end of the Celtic year. As the bonfire leaps skyward, it rends the boundaries between worlds and years, stirring the souls of the dead and those yet living. When the great bonfire finally sees ashes on November 1, the new Celtic year, the winter and the season of Death have arrived.

The festival of Samhain is the origin of our contemporary "Halloween." Too potent to be banished by time and Christianity, remnants of the original celebration remain. These "remnants" echo of still-living traditions powerful enough to open a door to the Otherworld. But how do we put Samhain back into Halloween?

Tradition without essence is meaningless, at best, empty sentimentality. The black cats, grinning pumpkins and trick-or-treats of Halloween satisfy little except a sweet tooth and possibly the temporary atmospheric appreciation of a moonlit, windy night. However, coupled with the archaic remains of the Samhain festival, these simple conventions become compelling indeed.

Marking the end of the year, Samhain heralds the disintegration of the old order and the calends of the new. Let us look at some traditions that honour the arrival of the Otherworldly host such as divinations, feasting, masquerades and the use of harvest symbols.

The harvest that began at Lughnasadh is seconded at Mabon, the autumnal equinox, and finds its fruition in the third and final harvest at Samhain. Fruits and nuts are the last gifts of nature to be gathered. Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit-bearing trees holds the apple as her symbol. At the horizontal centre of the apple is a five-pointed star, sacred to the Goddess. Mythologies the world over are replete with sacred fruits and precious apples, often located in otherworldly groves or gardens such as Avalon, Tir na nOg or the Garden of Eden.

Divinations at Samhain reflect the need to discern the germ of new beginnings from the whirling debris of dissolution at year-end. Both apples and nuts find an enduring role of love and fertility in these traditions. Halloween is also known as "Nutcrack Night," for the hazel and walnuts that are placed on a fire or stove to foretell the fidelity of lovers. Hazel nuts and water are particularly divinatory, harking back to the Well of Connla, where the nine hazel trees of wisdom drop their nuts into the murmuring waters.

The predominant colour of Samhain is black. Black is the winter, the moldering leaves, the rich underworld womb to which seeds of plants and ideas close their eyes for the winter. Black is the waning moon, the magnificent darkness of the crone of wisdom, the Cailleach, the bone-rattling Baba Yaga and our Halloween "witch." Long sacred to the moon goddess and the world of spirit, cats find their natural place alongside the Cailleach, as well as the owl, a bird of wisdom.

Carved pumpkins are a delightful Halloween tradition, brought to the United States by 18th century Irish immigrants. The pumpkin made a good substitute for carved turnip lanterns and introduced Jack of the Lantern to the new world.

The Feile na Marbh ("fayluh nuh morv") is the origin of our trick-or-treat tradition. As the veil between worlds thins, all manner of spirits walk abroad on Samhain, including those of loved ones passed on. An empty chair by the fire, porridge and tobacco were left along with a candle in the window to guide the hungry ghosts home for comfort and to seek their blessing in the coming year. Spirits who found their homes less than inviting were inclined to withhold their blessing and misfortune often befell those so uncivil.

The wearing of masque and costume on Samhain is to deceive wandering spirits, lest they recognize and call you to the Otherworld before your time. Wearing masques and dressing as an animal is also very old magic for assimilating the strength and spirit of a revered creature. The carrying of noisemakers fractures the ordinary drone of this world and opens a space for Otherworldly messages to break through.

A very old aspect of Samhain is sortilege, the act of deciding something by casting lots. While the burning "“Wicker Man" tales are probably not fact-based, it is likely that sacrifice by lot was performed throughout the ancient world. The sacrifice of a king or other designee imitated nature and dedicated life energy in a time of seasonal decline. The modern interpretation of this custom is the baking of cakes, Colcannon or Barmbrack with tokens within to select a festive "Lord of Misrule" or otherwise divine the future by the type of token found inside.

By enlivening the human senses through divination, disguise, propitiation, sound and imagery, a temenos is created, a divine common ground, wherein the ordinary and the universal exist as one. In the death of days and outlived ways of being comes renewal and the living promise of rebirth in even the darkest seasons of mortal life.

This Halloween, light a candle, tell a story, embrace the beautiful chaos of Samhain - the rattling leaves are speaking to you. Blessed Be, Happy New Year.



Ideas for Celebrating the Season - Putting Samhain Back into Halloween

By C. Austin

Keep it simple! It is the act of doing that is important not the polish of the finished product or event. Always be sure to take appropriate precautions - fire and child safety are a must!

Nature

  1. Ceremoniously finish cleaning up your garden or lawn by October 31.
  2. Gather in remaining fruit or produce from your garden - anything not gathered in by Samhain should be left to the Pooka.
  3. Preserve flowers, a grain sheaf or garden produce for enjoyment in the coming winter season as well as to insure successful planting in the spring.
  4. Make a simple Samhain wreath of apples, nuts, leaves and a few grain stalks.
  5. Plant flower bulbs for Samhain - observe the moment when the bulbs rest within the welcoming underground of the Goddess.
  6. Kindle a bonfire or a single candle to welcome the underworld tide of Samhain. Ignite the fire ceremoniously, noting the kindling of a new fire to welcome a new season, a new year. During the bonfire evening, join hands with those present and lead a procession or a spirited dance. Spiral in toward the light, around it and then spiral away again to invite the season and the spirits.
  7. Observe the welcoming darkness surrounding your bonfire or candlelight. Darkness enhances the brilliance of the light, just as the light deepens the surrounding darkness. There is comfort in both. The light within the depths of Samhain speaks to the burning tide of underworld life as well as the fecundity and light that will again be ours at Beltaine.
  8. When the fire has died down, jump a safe part of the fire for luck. Or if you have the space, do it the original way and light two bonfires and dance/run/walk between them for luck.
  9. Tell stories around the bonfire or your indoor candle; myths, folktales, ghost stories or personal stories will do well.
  10. Organize a night or daytime nature walk to sharpen the senses to the passage of time and season.
  11. Wind down ambitious projects and ideas for the winter. Hold the seeds of your ideas until Imbolg when they can germinate in the ambition of spring.
  12. Paint or colour black a picture to represent the underworld. Paste a spiral or other design of apple seeds and/or nuts onto it.
  13. Wear black - not in mourning but in celebration and synchronicity with the season around you.
  14. Sit alone or with friends in a cornfield at twilight and listen for whispers that tell of the year to come.
  15. Create and carry out any simple ritual that to you, honours year-end, acceptance of change and the turning of the New Year.

Celebrations

  1. Host a multi-generational gathering big or small to unite your own community. Wear costumes, play games, feast, dance and welcome the New Year.
  2. Bake a cake with one token (wrapped in wax paper large enough to prevent swallowing) in it. The recipient of this piece becomes the "Lord (or Lady) of Misrule," for Samhain evening. He or she is given a staff or wand (a stick with crepe paper streamers, or some other inexpensive decoration or paint) and is thereby permitted to rule over the proceedings, interrupting wherever they feel, leading the dances and games, etc.
  3. Host your own individual ceremony, light a bonfire or candle and welcome the tides of time.
  4. Celebrate year-end by volunteering by yourself or with friends to complete a helpful community project by Samhain.
  5. Organize a festive celebration at a retirement home to honour community elders.
  6. Participate in a harvest food drive with friends; donate the gathered feast to your local food bank.
  7. Make costumes or just masques with friends or by yourself. Gather paints, colourful leaves, feathers, beads, acorns, corn leaves and other bits to resemble any creature, animal or bird (otherworldly or otherwise) that you admire. Or create an entirely original masque with designs or numbers and such on it that are special to you.

Divinations

  1. Suspend apples from a string or bob them in a barrel - whoever takes the first bite will be lucky indeed
  2. Walnuts or hazel nuts roasted in a fire or on the stove will glow steadily to represent true love, while those that crack and pop reflect love's decline.
  3. Empty a walnut shell, affix a small candle (birthday cake size) within the shell and light it. Set it afloat in a long tub, a wading pool or pond. Name each walnut boat for a member of the party and watch as the boats navigate toward or away from each other signifying the course of fate.
  4. Make a paperboard with "yes" or "no" on it. Suspend a hazel nut, a shell or a crystal over it and ask the nut a question, it will swing gently toward the answer (the origin of the Ouiji board games).
  5. Carve an apple in a single peel; throw the apple over your left shoulder and turn to find your true love's initial formed by the peel.
  6. Eat an apple while looking in a mirror - look over your shoulder to try to catch the image of your true love in the background.
  7. Ask an apple a "yes" or "no" question, twist out the stem, saying, "yes..no" for each turn for the answer.
  8. Make a Samhain light by hollowing out an apple and putting a candle in it.
  9. Carve a "jack-o-lantern" out of a pumpkin, turnip or beet.
  10. When carving a small pumpkin or turnip, the carved lantern can be suspended from or on a stick and carried through the night as a ghostly lantern.
  11. When kindling a bonfire, place stones within the bonfire signifying people present - when the fire is ashes, note whether any of the stone are missing or misplaced - a portent of ill fortune to come.
  12. On Samhain night (early), find a field with kale or cabbage within. Without looking, pick one - the freshness of the leaves, the strength and form of the root will all give clues to the fortitude and form of your future life partner.
  13. Look into a well or pond or a cauldron or pot on Samhain night by candlelight - you will see your future love.
  14. Prepare three bowls of water or "luggies" - one clear, one cloudy, one empty. Blindfolded, have participants dip their finger in one bowl. If clear water is chosen, true love, cloudy leads to misbegotten love and the empty bowl portends a life just as empty. Two bowls, one of red coloured water and one of blue can be prepared and used the same way - the blue bowl foretelling travel, the red bowl foretelling a good fortune.
  15. Bring the magic of reflective water indoor. Look in a mirror as you comb your hair and be aware of images that appear behind you or in your mind that foretell the future (as the looking glass holds the reflection of your soul, so it is bad luck to drop or break a mirror. The particular mirror and comb to be used should be utilized only for this type of scrying).
  16. Bake Colcannon (a dish with potatoes, parsnip and onion) or a cake with wax-paper wrapped tokens inside. Have a married person cut the food into pieces for distribution among adult participants. Given the possibility of choking, it is probably wise to bake an alternative cake for actual consumption. A key can mean a journey, a thimble for finding a job, wheel for traveling, coins for fortune, ring for marriage and health.

Feile na Marb - Supper for the Dead

  1. Light a candle or jack-o-lantern and keep it glowing late into the night to welcome the Hungry ghosts
  2. On October 31 make a simple display of photographs and/or tokens of loved ones since passed. Write a brief message to each, burn the message in your bonfire or jack-o-lantern at evening's end to send the message to the Otherworld.
  3. Leave or designate an empty chair(s) at your table, leave a bit of food and drink for visiting spirits as well as any token or special object they loved in life (in the morning, throw food away as the spirits will have thankfully absorbed its essence).
  4. Hold hands with friends and family and lead a simple spiral dance throughout your space to welcome visiting spirits (always make sure to invite, never demand the attendance of the deceased.)


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