Samhain: Celtic New Year
Samhain is the mid point between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice and was the biggest Celtic festival and the Celtic New Year. In Europe this falls on October 31st and in New Zealand on April 30th. However it is likely the Celts held their festivals on the New Moon, which is May 12th this year.
The reason New Year was celebrated at the beginning of Winter and on a new moon was because for the Celts light was born out of the darkness. Just as human life begins in the darkness of the womb and we born into the light. From the void, all life is created. The darkness comes first. The Celts new phase or new day, also began at sunset for the same reasons.
Interestingly, for us in New Zealand, its only a month before Matariki, the Maori New year which is also celebrated on the New Moon.
Samhain marks the end of the harvest season, heralds in the beginning of winter and the dark half of the year. Samhain is the Gaelic name for the month of November, the literal translation being ‘summer’s end’.
Being largely a farming community, the Celts observed the season of Samhain as the time when the earth was dying. The crops had already been harvested and stored and the fields lay barren.
So Samhain was a time of death and therefore honouring the dead and The Celts believed that at this time, more so than any other time of the year, the spirits of the dead were able to mingle with the living. Samhain was one of the three spirit nights of the year, along with Beltaine and Midsummers eve, when the veil between the worlds, this world and the otherworld was thought to be thin. And it wasn’t only the Spirits of the Dead who were thought to roam this night. In faery lore this was the night known as the ‘Wild Hunt’, where the Side or Faery beings were believed to ride out of the hollow hills and burial mounds to gather the lost and wandering souls of the dead and lead them home. Mortals avoided encounters with the Side, lest they get abducted and stolen away to faery land.
If you were foolhardy enough to venture out on this night you would have taken a protective charm against the Side such as an iron sword or a needle which the Side are repelled by.
By dressing up as gouls and ghosts, people both honoured the dead and provided some confusion for the roaming faery beings! Referred to as Mischief Night, this was a night when social rules and norms were set aside and people careened through the streets, smeared door knobs with treacle, filled locks with glue and other such fun. Halloween pranks and the tradition of visiting houses begging for goodies turned into modern day trick or treat. Underneath all the merry making was a deeper message - the masked figures represented the spirits of the dead and to refuse them was to invite vengeance on the household - hence the trick if there was no treat!
In Scotland, Samhain ushers in the reign of the Cailleach, the hag queen who rules over the winter months until the return of the spring goddess Bride. Like many Celtic goddesses, they were thought to be two opposite aspects of the same goddess - foul and fair, old and young, winter and spring, infertile and fertile, hag and maiden. This dark goddess was responsible for the cutting winds and harshness of the Northern Winter, she wields a magic hammer which she strikes the grass into blades of ice. She is old and wild, an earth shaper and mountain mother who gave birth to the rocks and the islands.
To celebrate Samhain in our modern world a simple thing to do is to create an altar with photos and names of your ancestors. Light a candle for them and say this beautiful blessing:
“Good Samhain to you and yours. May the blood of your ancestors flow through your veins, like a river over the landscape of memory. May you hear your Beloved Dead as they whisper their wisdom in your ear and leave you with the gift of hope. We will call their names at Samhain. What is remembered lives.”