The Celtic Feast of Samhain; Celtic New Year
November 1 is the Celtic Feast of Samhain. Samhain – “summer’s end” was the most important of the ancient Celtic feasts.
The Celts honoured the intertwining forces of existence; darkness and light, night and day, cold and heat, death and life. The Celtic year began with An Geamhradh, the dark Celtic winter, and ended with Am Foghar, the celtic Harvest. Samhain and the new Celtic year actually begins at dusk on October 31.
Oidhche Shamhna, the Eve of Samhain, was extremely important. Villagers gathered the best of the autumn harvest and slaughtered cattle for the feast. The focus of the villager’s festivities was a great bonfire. Villagers cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle on the flames – bon fire comes from “bone fires”. With the great bonfire roaring, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit their hearth from the one great common flame, bonding all families of the village together.
The eve of the Celtic year was a very holy time. The Celts believed that Oidhche Shamhna was a gap in time. Our world and the Otherworld came together on the night between the old and new years. The dead could return to the places where they had lived.
Many rituals of Oidhche Shamhna provided hospitality for dead ancestors. Celts put food and drink out for the dead with great ceremony. They left their windows, doors and gates unlocked to give the dead free passage into their homes. Swarms of spirits poured into our world on November eve. Not all of these spirits were friendly, so Celts carved the images of spirit-guardians on turnips. They set these Jack O’Lanterns before their doors to keep out unwelcome visitors from the Otherworld.
There was also a much lighter side to the Celtic New Year rituals. Young people would put on strange disguises and roam about the country side, pretending to be the returning dead or spirits from the Other world. Celts thought the break in reality on November Eve not only provided a link between the worlds, but also dissolved the structure of society for the night. Boys and girls would put on each other’s clothes, And would generally flout convention by boisterous behaviour and by playing tricks on their elders and betters.
Divination of the events of the coming year was another prominent feature of Samhain. Celts used hazelnuts, symbols of wisdom, to fortell the future. Bobbing for apples, another traditional Samhain pastime, was a reference to the Celtic Emhain Abhlach, “Paradise of Apples,” where the dead, having eaten of the sacred fruit, enjoyed a blissful immortality.
Many ancient Celtic customs proved compatible with the new Christian religion. Christianity embraced the Celtic notions of family, community, the bond among all people, and respect for the dead. The Western Church gave Samhain a Christian blessing in 837 AD when November 1 was designated the Feast of All Saints or Hallow Tide.
Oidhche Shamhna became Hallow E’en.