Ancient Samhain Festival Burns Brightly at Halloween
By C. Austin
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
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
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
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!
- Ceremoniously finish cleaning up your garden or lawn by October 31.
- Gather in remaining fruit or produce from your garden - anything
not gathered in by Samhain should be left to the Pooka.
- 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.
- Make a simple Samhain wreath of apples, nuts, leaves and a few
- Plant flower bulbs for Samhain - observe the moment when the
bulbs rest within the welcoming underground of the Goddess.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Tell stories around the bonfire or your indoor candle; myths,
folktales, ghost stories or personal stories will do well.
- Organize a night or daytime nature walk to sharpen the senses to
the passage of time and season.
- 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.
- Paint or colour black a picture to represent the underworld.
Paste a spiral or other design of apple seeds and/or nuts onto it.
- Wear black - not in mourning but in celebration and synchronicity
with the season around you.
- Sit alone or with friends in a cornfield at twilight and listen
for whispers that tell of the year to come.
- Create and carry out any simple ritual that to you, honours
year-end, acceptance of change and the turning of the New Year.
- Host a multi-generational gathering big or small to unite your
own community. Wear costumes, play games, feast, dance and welcome
the New Year.
- 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.
- Host your own individual ceremony, light a bonfire or candle and
welcome the tides of time.
- Celebrate year-end by volunteering by yourself or with friends to
complete a helpful community project by Samhain.
- Organize a festive celebration at a retirement home to honour
- Participate in a harvest food drive with friends; donate the
gathered feast to your local food bank.
- 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.
- Suspend apples from a string or bob them in a barrel - whoever
takes the first bite will be lucky indeed
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Ask an apple a "yes" or "no" question, twist out the stem, saying,
"yes..no" for each turn for the answer.
- Make a Samhain light by hollowing out an apple and putting a candle in it.
- Carve a "jack-o-lantern" out of a pumpkin, turnip or beet.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- Look into a well or pond or a cauldron or pot on Samhain night by
candlelight - you will see your future love.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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
- Light a candle or jack-o-lantern and keep it glowing late into the
night to welcome the Hungry ghosts
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.)