I would like to begin this entry by placing a disclaimer: What I will write here is simply my interpretation (through my own readings, learnings, and research) of what this holiday is. It is in no way, shape or form meant to be taken as the end-all, be-all of what this holiday is for all that follow this tradition. While many may subscribe to some of the things I write here, many more may not, and will tend to follow a different path. Feel free to ask your closest Pagan what this holiday means to them! Also, I feel it necessary to define the word ‘Pagan’ as I use it here. I am referring to those that follow a belief system influenced by the pre-Christian religions of Europe and it’s surrounding areas.
Samhain (say “sow-inn”) is, for many Pagans, the third and final fall harvest holiday of the eight Sabbats. It is also known as Halloween, Hallowmas, All Hallows Eve, and Feast of the Dead (among many other names). Marking the end of the summer and beginning of winter, many consider this the end of the current year and beginning of the next.
The histories of Samhain can be traced back to medieval Celtic traditions. In those early days, the people saw this time of year as the end of the days of light, and beginning of the dark days. A celebration to mark the end of the year would begin on the eve of Samhain (the day of which is traditionally November 1st), at sunset. Large bonfires were lit, and some of the fruits of the harvest and livestock were sacrificed to appease the deities, in hopes that they would bring the people through the hard winters in good health. Many communities would light two bonfires, and the people would walk between them (some would walk their animals between them as well) in order to cleanse themselves of the previous years’ ills in hopes that the following year would yield abundance.
At this time of year, it was also believed that the gate between this world and the next was open, allowing for the spirits of those passed to come back and communicate with those present. Not only good spirits, but spirits of ill-intent were expected to try to come back through those gates. Peoples of that time would don costumes and light what would eventually become our modern jack-o-lanterns, in an attempt to ward off the ill-intentioned spirits. Many would also set places at their own dinner tables for those in their lives that had passed on in the last year, and for ancestors that might care to join them from the beyond. Favorite dishes of those passed would be prepared, and many would perform rituals, sing traditional songs and even dance to entertain their spirits. Candles would be lit in western-facing windows to help guide spirits back to their place of rest.
In lore, this is the time of year that the God dies and we enter into a quiet time of reflection before he is once again born of the Goddess at Yule. In some traditions the Goddess is celebrated in her old age as the Crone – a woman of great knowledge and power. She will reign once again until the God comes into his maturity in the spring. Many consider this to be the end of the year, but don’t believe the new year begins again until the Winter Solstice, when the sun begins making it’s return to the world. The weeks in between, for some, are a time of contemplation, reflection, and meditation to prepare for the coming new year.
Today, Pagans of all kinds consider this one of the most important holidays in the wheel of the year. Samhain still represents an ending and new beginning. For some (myself included), it still means the end of one year and beginning of the next. It is a time to shed old habits, and say goodbye to the things in your life that must go. It is also a time to welcome the new, and prepare yourself for all that is coming to you. Many still set places at their dinner table for ancestors and those recently passed. Most spend those meals in silent contemplation and reflection, to honor their beloved dead. Witches from all traditions hold ritual circles to honor those passed and attempt to communicate with the spirits of the dead.
While this is a very short explanation of a holiday that deserves a much more in-depth study, I hope this helps you understand, at least a little bit, where this holiday came from, and how those that still hold to the old tradition might celebrate it today.