Samhain is a pagan holiday, celebrated as harvest season ends and the coldest half of the year begins. The vast majority of those who observe this holiday (in modern times) celebrate it from sundown on October 31st to sundown on November 1st. In days gone by it was spread over a 3 day period, covering the 31st through the 2nd.
For many it is the beginning of the spiritual new year. For all who observe this holiday it is considered a highly sacred time.
The two central focuses of Samhain are the honoring of our ancestors who have passed into the spirit realm, and the recognition of the cycle of death and rebirth.
The passing of life is literally felt in the air at this time, as it coincides with the close of the growing season. The nights are getting progressively longer, there is a distinct chill in the air, and winter looms on the horizon. The gardens, fields, and woodland foliage is turning brown and dying off.
It is time to gather in all livestock from the hills and slaughter those animals who are not likely to survive the harsh winter months.
A simple way to grasp the underlying tone of this celebration is to imagine the feeling you get when you are latching the door, turning off the lights, and hunkering down for the evening at the end of a long day.
The time has come for you to look inward and focus on your personal growth, the nurturing of your family, and the strengthening of the spiritual forces you call on to protect your home.
This holiday is considered a time to reaffirm the ties of family and friendship and to strengthen social bonds.
The veil between the world of the living and the spirit realm of the dead is thinnest on this night, allowing the spirits to return and visit those who walk the earthly realm. The poor, shivering, hungry spirits naturally gravitate from bare fields and leafless woodlands to the shelter of a warm home and familiar ‘fireside’. This opens an avenue that allows souls of both realms to find closure in their grieving and to adjust to their loss by communing with one another once again.
In accordance with the central theme of Samhain (honoring the ancestors) an Ancestral Altar is set up in the home. Traditionally, it is placed on the north wall of the dining room, but can certainly be set anywhere that space allows. It is helpful to keep it near the area where you will partake of your Samhain feast.
Each family member places small tokens or photographs of their dearly departed in this space, both human and animal loved ones can be represented here. Most often this is memorabilia representing those who have crossed over to the spirit realm within the last year. However, it can also include those whose memory or influence carries a profound meaning to them.
Just before it is time to sit down to dinner each person quietly takes their place at the altar. They then light a candle in honor of the ancestors represented on the altar and bow their heads in a moment of silence. Traditionally, when this moment concludes a bell is chimed. All stand and offer a toast to the ancestors that they have represented on the altar. After the toasts are complete, a bell is chimed once again, signifying that it is time for everyone to take their place at the feast table.
At the table, a Samhain feast has been laid out with a setting for each guest. An extra setting is also placed there for the ancestors to come and once again sup with their friends and family.
Each person at the table pours a bit of their beverage into the glass at this setting and puts a small bit of food from their plate onto the ancestors plate; showing their delight in being in the company of their loved ones once again.
These traditions are practiced so that we, as the living, are able to honor those who have passed, just as they honored us before we were born. And, as they will honor us when our time to cross to their world comes, where we will take our place beside them in the realm of the dead.
Halloween is the better known celebration that occurs on October 31st in modern times. This Christian holiday, while quite different from its Pagan predecessor Samhain, still holds a few traditions in common. Trick or treating and jack-o-lanterns are elements that are prominent in both celebrations.
Trick or treating was quite different in the Olde Days. It was not confined to younger generations, but enjoyed by all. Folks dressed in scary costumes and ran joyously from door to door seeking spirits - alcoholic spirits that is! Probably not a tradition we should seek to reinstate!
There are many legends about the origin of the jack-o-lantern, mostly dependent on which culture you explore. My favorite comes from Irish legend.
The Irish believe that there was a man named Stingy who was too mean to get into heaven and had played too many tricks on the devil to get into hell.
After death Stingy was resigned to walk the earthly realms carrying a lantern. This lantern was made from a turnip with a burning coal placed inside. This fate resulted in Stingy becoming known as ‘Jack of the Lantern’.
Thus, rutabagas, potatoes, turnips, and beets were hollowed out, scary faces were carved into their surfaces, candles were placed inside and lit. Then these Samhain lanterns were placed in windows and adjacent to doorways. This was done in an effort to scare away Stingy and any other spirits who walked the earth on this sacred night. The jack-o-lantern was born!
In the Days of Olde caroling was also observed on Samhain (and all other pagan holidays actually). This tradition did not find its way into the modern observance of Halloween.
Minstrels traveled from door to door singing tunes and reciting poems geared toward the holiday. It was truly an activity of merriment.
Caroling is a tradition that I would love to see revived. How lovely it would be to dress in warm fall sweaters, gather in groups, and walk the neighborhood blessing its members with song and poem!
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Travel with me on this journey we call life ...
May good fortune chase you throughout ALL of your days!
Blessings ~ Diane