With the fall harvest just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to do a post on the differences and subtle connections of the holidays found at the end of October and the beginning of November. The origins of these holidays while not necessarily “witchy” do have a foothold in pagan practices which tie into the research I have done thus far in my Origins of Witchcraft series.
While these holidays are celebrated on various dates, they each signify a transition that is both mystifying and revered by every culture on the planet. Each celebration, in its own way, honors one’s life and the soul’s progression to the next place on their journey. It is something we all face from the first day we take breath, a human journey that, in the end, connects us all.
The holidays we will discuss are on these dates:
- Samhain – Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season – Oct 31 – Nov 1
- Halloween – “All Hallows Eve” part of the triduum for the Christian Church – October 31
- All Saints Day – “All Hallows Day” celebrating saints known and unknown – November 1
- Day of the Dead – Prayer and remembrance for those who have died – Oct 31-Nov 2
The post ended up a bit long so I have broken it into 2 parts. My research for All Saints Day and Day of the Dead can be found here. In the meantime, let’s dive into Samhain and Halloween!
This pagan festival with origins in an ancient Celtic tradition seems to flow in and around all of the aforementioned celebrations. Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”) represents the harvest, appropriate for the name which in modern Irish means “summer’s-end.” This was the time of year that the family homes would put out their hearth fires, something that burned constantly throughout the year, and they would celebrate the year’s harvest and the end of the life cycle. Celebrants’ home fires would be relit from a flame gathered from the main bonfire at the community celebration to represent the start of a new year. Samhain is also known as “the witches’ New Year” which, I believe, stems from the pagans’ use of this holiday long after it was banned by the church. Those who didn’t convert were thought to be witches, and any holidays they celebrated outside of the church were forbidden.
The ancient pagans were ushering in a challenging season, so I look at this celebration as the last “hoorah,” so to speak, before winter. It was the beginning of a cold and dark winter when they would have to rely entirely on the harvest they managed to sow throughout the summer. It was a time of reflection, which I believed allowed celebrants to properly grieve those who had been lost throughout the year. This is when the world slowed down, and people were able to come to terms with changes in their lives that perhaps they hadn’t had time to face before. It was believed that the barriers between this world and the next were thinned at this time of year, so all thoughts were centered on death and rebirth. A theme that carries through and binds all of these holidays today.
It was considered the death of the old year and birth of the new when herds returned to pasture, and tenures were renewed. For the Celts, the day began not in the morning, but with darkness at sunset so the 3-day celebration started the night of the 31st. It was believed that the veils of the physical and spiritual worlds were easier to pass through at this time, so it was thought that it was the one time of year that the dead could walk among the living. The Celts prepared offerings meant to deter fairies or otherworldly beings from causing mischief, and Jack-o-lanterns were created from carved turnips and a fiery coal to protect the bearer. This tradition is still alive and well today each and every time someone carves a pumpkin for Halloween.
It was expected that ancestors may cross over for a visit at this time as well so a tradition called “dumb supper” evolved. Ancestors were invited to join in before food was consumed, and it was a way of giving families a way to catch up with their dearly departed. Children would play games to entertain their spirit guests, and at night the doors and windows would be left open for the dead to enter and feast on the cakes that had been left for them.
For those looking for a more meaningful way to connect to this time of year, you can light a candle on Samhain (aka Halloween night) and remember all who have passed this last year. The glow is to symbolize the light you are shining for their journey, and it is a meaningful ritual that can bring you peace if you are struggling with the death of a loved one.
For more on Samhain, I found these great links:
When the Irish brought their traditions to 19th-century America, they formed the secular holiday of Halloween as we know it today. Trick-or-treating is believed to have stemmed from ancient Irish practices in the nights leading to Samhain in which an activity called “mumming” would take place. Celebrants would put on costumes and go door-to-door singing songs to the dead in exchange for cakes. The British practice of giving “soul cakes” to the poor could also be considered the start of this tradition, as beggars were given cakes in exchange for their prayers for the resident’s deceased family members. It is thought that this practice replaced the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits on this night.
The celebration of Halloween was squelched in some areas of the developing country due to strict religious beliefs and was much more common in the southern colonies due to that. As more ethnic groups merged together, the communities started having celebrations in which they would celebrate the harvest and share stories of their loved ones. By the second half of the 19th century, Halloween was here to stay and the ancient Samhain traditions were “Americanized.”
In the late 1800s, parents were encouraged to take the frightening and grotesque things out of their parties, which had evolved over time into community events. The parties were focused on foods of the season and festive costumes, and games that people of all ages could enjoy. Bobbing for apples may have had a foothold in the past to a Roman celebration called Pomona. It honored the Goddess of fruitful abundance of the same name, who was said to be a wood nymph. Apples were a symbol of life and immortality in Celtic tradition, so it isn’t surprising to see them “pop” back up in America so many years later. Please pardon the bobbing-for-apples pun, I just couldn’t help myself. 🙂
Young women would identify future husbands in a number of ways since it was believed the spirits in the next world could aid the seeker. In 18th-century Ireland, whoever found a ring in her mashed potatoes would find true love. In Scotland, hazelnuts were tossed into the fireplace and were representations of a maiden’s future husband. While accounts vary, the nuts that popped and exploded were a good sign and those that turned to ash, not so much. Young women even went as far as tossing apple peels over their shoulders in the hopes that the peels would land on the floor curved just so in order to reflect their future husband’s initial. It seems that some of these party games also made their way to America by way of the immigrants who made their homes there.
Sometime between 1920 and 1950, Americans began to dress in costumes and go from house to house asking for food or money, which became what we now know as trick-or-treating. It seemed that the old tradition was revived since it was an inexpensive way for an entire community to participate in the celebration. It may have also been a way for the community to avoid tricks by giving treats, which makes complete sense to me.
Halloween is largely non-religious to this day and is celebrated on October 31st each year. In America, it is the second largest commercial holiday after Christmas, and we spend an estimated $6 billion annually to pay homage to traditions we have largely forgotten about.
For more on Halloween, check these out:
Looking for a sweet treat this fall? Anyone who is interested in checking out my fantasy romance series, head over to: https://books2read.com/ap/xXG1QX/DA-Henneman! You will also find my mythology retellings there as well!
Next week, we will dive into All Saints Day and Day of the Dead, where we will investigate further the ties that bind all of these holidays and celebrations together. In the meantime, let me know how you celebrate the harvest in your part of the world. Do you have traditions to honor your ancestors? I would love to hear your stories! In the meantime, be kind to one another and see you next week! XO