Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, which is nearly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Samhain, a Celtic festival, marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the darker half of the year.
According to the ancient Celtic calendar, the year began on a day corresponding to November 1st on our present calendar. Since the Celts were a pastoral people, it was a time when cattle and sheep had to be moved to closer pastures and all livestock had to be secured for the winter months. Crops were harvested and stored. The date marked both an ending and a beginning in an eternal cycle.
Samhain (like Beltane) was a time when the doorways to the Otherworld opened enough for fairies and the dead to communicate with us; but while Beltane was a summer festival for the living, Samhain “was essentially a festival for the dead”. Beings and souls from the Otherworld were said to come into our world at Samhain. It is still the custom in some areas to set a place at the Samhain feast for the souls of dead kinfolk and to tell tales of one’s forebears.
Known to most as “Halloween: Samhain is the time that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is the thinnest. In ancient times it was believed that this is the time that our ancestors would return to visit us, to give help and advice. People set out lights in hollowed-out turnips to guide the spirits of the dead (the fore-runners of the modern Jack-O-lanterns) and put out food as an offering (which evolved to the modern tradition of “trick-or-treating”).
Wearing costumes and masks may have been another way to befuddle, ward-off the harmful spirits and fairies. Guising or mumming was common at winter festivals in general, but was particularly appropriate to a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be abroad. In Ireland, costumes were sometimes worn by those who went about before nightfall collecting for a Samhain feast. Trick-or-treating may have come from the custom of going door-to-door collecting food for Samhain feasts, fuel for Samhain bonfires and/or offerings for the spirits and fairies.
Samhain is also our New Year’s Day. It may seem strange to have a new year begin in the fall, when the days are growing shorter and colder. But death and birth are two sides of the same coin. It is the time of death and the time of new beginnings; when we think about hope and change and what the next year will bring.
A Ritual for Samhain
“Place upon the altar apples, pomegranates, pumpkins, squashes and other late autumn fruits. Autumn flowers such as marigolds and chrysanthemums are fine too. Write on a piece of paper an aspect of your life that you wish to be free of: anger, a bad habit, misplaced feelings, disease. The cauldron or some similar tool must be present before the altar as well, on a trivet of some other heat-proof surface. A small, flat dish marked with an eight-spoke wheel should also be there.
Prior to the ritual, sit quietly and think of friends and loved ones who have passed away. Do not despair. Know that they have gone on to greater things. Keep firmly in mind that the physical isn’t the absolute reality and that souls never die.
Arrange the altar, light the candles and censer, and cast the circle of stones. Recite the Blessings Chant*.
The Blessing Chant – May the power of The One, the source of all creation; all pervasive, omnipotent, eternal; may the Goddess, the lady of the moon; and the God horned hunter of the sun; may the power of the spirits of the stones, rulers of the elemental realms,.may the powers of the stars above and the earth below, bless this place, and this time, and I who am with you.
Invoke the Goddess and God.
Lift one of the pomegranates and, with your freshly washed white handled knife, pierce the skin of the fruit, Remove several seeds and place them on the wheel marked dish. Raise your wand, face the altar and say:
On this night of Samhain, I mark your passing, O’ sun king, through the sunset into the land of the young. I mark also the passing of all who have gone before, and all who will go after. O’ gracious Goddess, eternal Mother, you who gives birth to the fallen, teach me to know that in the time of the greatest darkness there is the greatest light.
Taste the pomegranate seeds; burst them with your teeth and savor their sharp, bittersweet flavor. Look down at the eight-spoke symbol on the plate; the wheel of the year, the cycle of the seasons, the end and beginning of all creation. Light a fire within the cauldron (a candle is fine). Sit before it,holding the piece of paper, gazing at its flames. Say”
Wise one of the waning moon, Goddess of the starry night, I create this fire within your cauldron to transform that which is plaguing me. May the energies be reversed: from darkness, light! From bane, good! From death, birth!
Light the paper in the cauldron’s flames and drop it inside. As it burns, know that the dark diminishes and finally leaves you as it is consumed within the universal fires.
If you wish, you may attempt scrying or some other form of divination, for this is a perfect time to look into the past or future. Try to recall past lives too, if you will. Honor the dead with your memories.
Release any pain and sense of loss you may feel into the cauldron’s flames.
Celebrate the simple feast. The circle is released.” – From: WICCA: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham