Samhain The Ancient Halloween

Halloween; that time of year when the clocks turn back and the long dark nights are upon us.  

SamhainAcross the world, and here in West Leicester (where we do it in style), many of us dress up as ghosts and ghouls to go trick or treating with our carved pumpkin lanterns, embracing all things spooky and dark. However, this festival was a significant time for our Celtic ancestors in Europe.

The Celts called this festival Samhain (Sow-in) meaning Summer's End and dates back at least 6000 years. This was the Celtic New Year. Without conventional calendars, the falling leaves and first biting frosts were temporal markers. They heralded the end of summer's abundance and the beginning of lean times over the winter months. 

At Samhain, the harvest would be in and the animals herded into their winter shelters. With limited food, weaker beasts were slaughtered and the meat preserved to last until the return of spring. The war to survive was fought upon the battle ground of snow and ice. Death was ever present - the weak and old may not live to see the spring.

The Celts believed that at Samhain the veil between the world of the living and the land of the dead was thin enough to cross. Therefore they could commune with their ancestral spirits to ask for guidance and advice to help through the dark times.   

By the Mediaeval period, as the Church cemented its power, this tradition changed from ancestor worship to demons roaming the streets. Dressing in a demonic disguise was a popular method of defence. This tied in with the tradition of mumming, where people travelled door to door performing short plays in return for food. This where the modern tradition of Halloween and trick or treating has its roots.

In these days of central heating, the winter is not the life and death struggle our ancestors endured. But the cycles of life continue.  For many, now is the time to reflect on the achievements of the past year,  let go of what is no longer needed or viable, honour our lost loved ones and embrace all that we have.

Happy Celtic New Year!