Seasonal Celebrations

Samhain History and Modern Ways to Celebrate

October 31st – November 1st

The word Samhain, Samhuinn or Samhainn is pronounced sa-win. Samhain means “summer’s end”. Representative of our ancestors, death and balance.


The Celtic year began with Samhain as did the winter season. It marked the end of the lighter half of the year and thus was considered the beginning. Vegetation started dying, livestock was slaughtered and salted to put away for winter preserves and death was literally in the air. It was a time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld was thought to be at its very thinnest, more so than all the festivals. The dead could return to the land of the living and likewise, some of the living, especially poets were able to enter the Otherworld through the doorways of the “sidhe”, holes in the ground covered by a large stone like Poulnabrone Dolmen or neolithic burial chambers like Maeshowe in Scotland and The Hill of Tara in Ireland. The Hill of Tara is specifically aligned with the Samhain sunrise. Their gods, goddesses and deities known as the Sidhe or Aos Si, “people of the mounds” were thought to be especially active. It’s easy to understand why this time of year was considered so unique as many describe fall as having an intangible feeling of magic and nostalgia in the air. Samhain, along with it’s opposite light festival Beltane, were considered the most magical of their celebrations as they signified the beginning of each, the dark and light halves of the year. Samhain is the only celebration that doesn’t have substantial evidence of being associated with one specific deity more than others however, many people speculate it could have been The Morrigan who’s name meant “great queen”. It may have also been associated with the great Callieach, winter hag goddess herself. This would make sense considering the darker elements of both of these personas and being associated with death, winter or the journey to the afterlife. In Irish mythology, The Morrigan and the Dagda mate on the night of Samhain to discuss the continuing prosperity, safety and well being of their tribe, the Tuatha De Danann. This coupling reminds us again of the marriage between the land goddess and the sun god, of which their fruits (child) would be sown not coincidentally nine months later at the harvest festival of Lughnasadh. The Welsh king of fairies, Gwyn ap Nudd with his hounds was leader of the wild hunt and it was thought that he rode out on Samhain night bringing bad luck, havoc and possibly death to those who saw him, capturing and taking them down to the Underworld. Could this tale have been inspiration for the famous story of the Headless Horseman?

Halloween is another name for Samhain and a tradition that masses of Irish immigrants brought with them to America, especially during the potato famine when it really gained traction as a mainstream family tradition. Without a doubt, one of the most prominent symbols of present day Halloween are Jack O’Lanterns and trick or treating. Originally, the Irish would use turnips and gourds as well as lay out milk for their ancestors to welcome them or give as an offering to their deities. They also laid out milk, possibly for the Kellas cat or Cat Sith. These were black cats thought to be witches that had the ability to turn into a cat nine times. If you left an offering of milk they would likely bless your home verses curse it if there was none. This is also likely where the folklore of a cat having nine lives originated from. When the Irish came to America, they transitioned to pumpkin carving simply because they were readily available here, bigger and easier to carve. If you had to go out on the town, you wore a disguise to blend in with the deceased ghosts roaming about, which could have been as simple as a shirt over your head. This evolved as well into dressing in full costume and going house to house to ask for an “offering” of candy fulfilling the role of the Aos Sidhe themselves.

In the spirit of this being a time when nature was dying literally and allegorically, those that had passed away were honored as well. Traditionally, a feast would be prepared and the family would leave a chair or multiple chairs out for their deceased loved ones who were thought to be visiting. They may have even fixed their deceased loved one’s favorite meal. Family may have frequented their ancestors grave sites and left offerings there as well. In Celtic culture, wakes were great social occasions and just as in ancient times, the deeds of their loved ones were heralded and there was much singing and commemoration. Funerals were true celebrations of life and their lives continued to be honored and recognized at Samhain. This festival became the Christianized “All Saint’s Day” which also commemorated important figures who were deceased. The essence of Samhain is one of honoring ancestors as well as gaining courage and perseverance to withstand the coming winter and the darker elements of life.

Ways to Celebrate: 

Decorate accordingly: Decorate your home or space with seasonal symbols and colors of nature. Common decorations are the cauldron, apples, nuts, berries, turnips, photos of ancestors or deceased loved ones and the colors black, orange and red. Find unique items that have strong symbology for you.

Halloween: Participate in Halloween, the modern version of Samhain! Dress up, attend a party, go trick or treating with your children, friend’s children or nieces and nephews! Pass out candy to children if you live in a neighborhood. 

Call on ancestors: Visit and tend to the gravesite of a loved one. Decorate their gravesite with a fall inspired offering of flowers or dried herbs. Find a quiet place and think of your favored memories with them. Look through old pictures. Allow yourself to take this time to feel, remember and appreciate their existence and continued importance in your life and memories. This can be extended to an actual ancestors alter made of photographs, heirlooms, candles and favorite bits of other memorabilia on a dresser or alter table. Take some time to research your ancestry or pay a visit to your elders to hear their stories of your family or family history you may have never heard before. 

Try your hand at Celtic runes: Create a set of Celtic runes based on the Ogham alphabet for the purpose of divination. Ask yourself questions you are seeking answers to, throw the runes and your thoughts, images or visions may be intuitively interpreted.

Create a craft: Make a Samhain inspired craft such as a seasonal pumpkin wreath or ancestor inspired jewelry.

Connect with others: Prepare a Samhain dinner. Listen to appropriate seasonal music. Light candles. Some common dishes are boxty cakes, cheesy potatoes, potato or pumpkin pie, spice or Irish cakes and chocolate apples or another apple related treat. Some prepare a favored dish of their deceased loved one. If you’re a stickler for tradition, leave a seat open for your deceased loved one(s) as well. Tradition would also be to dine in silence and reflect on your ancestors. Some prefer to tell stories of the deceased and like most dinners, have it filled with easy conversation and laughter instead of silence. It’s up to you! Attend a pagan social event. Mark this season with something unique to make it feel like more of a special occasion.

Write in your journal: Samhain often feels like a time of “letting go”. Is there anything you need to “let go” of that is not serving to make you a better person any longer?

Make an offering: Give back to nature by donating to a charity or participate in a community, park or coastal clean up program. Put out bird seed or a basket of fruit, berries or nuts for local wildlife. Prepare a basket of seasonal items or a small seasonal gift to give to someone in need , your neighbor, your child’s teacher, a community leader or the mail carrier. Buy someone’s coffee or meal behind you at the drive in. Be creative in your offering and method of “giving back”. 

Kindle a bonfire: Make a fire outside if possible, although indoors is fine as well. Reflect on your life past and present keeping a positive mind frame. Write down a negative habit or vice you would like to end this year and throw the paper into the flames when you are ready as you imagine release. You can meditate looking into the fire, or sit with your eyes closed imagining a better “you” coming into fruition. If you feel like moving, you can meditate while moving around the fire clockwise. When you encounter problems later with your issue, imagine the fire and the literal and symbolic end of your issue to strengthen your resolve and promote your continued success. A drum circle would also be a fun activity if possible with family or friends! Many people write a list of their goals or wishes for the coming season, then ceremoniously burn it in the fire sending those wishes into the otherworld. 

Nature walk and meditation: Take a meditative walk through nature enjoying the last days of warmer weather and greenery. Take notice to the ever changing beautiful details of fall. If so desired, collect natural objects to build crafts at home, add to a fall inspired altar or make a temporary nature mandala during your outing. 

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory noone can steal.”

-From an Irish headstone

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Isla MacKinnon

Writer and Herbalist

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A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.


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