Many Wiccans, Druids and other pagans across the globe will be marking the beginning of their spiritual new year with the two-day festival of Samhain. The most widely observed pagan festival begins for most pagans on Oct. 31 -- known to others as Halloween.
“At its core, Samhain is the start of winter and of the new year in the old Celtic calendar,” Jason Pitzl, a Wiccan from Eugene, Oregon, told International Business Times. “This is a time when the ancestors are honored, divinations for the new year are performed, and festivals are held in honor of the gods. It is a time of final harvest before the long winter ahead.”
Depending on geographical location, pagans celebrate Samhain at different times and in different ways. Some will choose to wait until the nearest weekend to the full moon to hold ceremonies. Others observe it a bit later, around Nov. 6, to mark the midpoint between fall equinox and winter solstice. In the southern hemisphere, Samhain takes place towards the end of April and beginning of May.
Rituals can include bonfires, dancing, feasting and ceremonies honoring ancestors and those who have died in the past year. For those unfamiliar with Samhain, below are three answers to common questions surrounding the pagan festival.
What is Samhain?
Samhain, pronounced saah-win or saa-ween, comes from the Gaelic word “Samhuin,” which means summer’s end. It is one of the eight annual Celtic festivals and one of eight "sabbats" that modern pagans celebrate in the course of the year. Paganism is an umbrella term for a movement of different nature-based religions. It is not related to Satanism or any form of devil worship.
“Samhain is the turning of the wheel. It feels almost like shutting off the lights for the evening or closing down the store for the night,” Heather Greene, the managing editor of a pagan news site, the Wild Hunt, told IBTimes. “It is time to go inward and focus on family and self.”
For many, the festival is a time to honor ancestors and those who have died in the past year. Seances are popular rituals since this is the time when the veil between this world and the spiritual one is at its thinnest, pagans believe.
“It’s a kind of memorial day for pagan people. The strongest theme is that of remembering, honoring and paying respects to the beloved dead,” Selena Fox, a pagan priestess and co-executive director of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church based in southwestern Wisconsin, told IBTimes.
There are several rituals that can be practiced during Samhain. Some decide to celebrate in group settings, while others choose to perform rituals in private.
“For me, Samhain has always been a very personal festival. My own celebrations have been either as a solitary practitioner or in a group of very close friends,” Green, who has celebrated Samhain as a Wiccan for 20 years, told IBTimes.
Many rituals involve creating an altar table with objects that relate to a particular ceremony. For instance, to honor one’s ancestors, an altar can include family photos and heirlooms. A family tree, postcards and flags from that person’s country or hometown can also be used. Family members can say blessings, light candles to honor the deceased and, later, eat a meal.
Other rituals include bonfires, divinations like tarot card readings, reflecting on the past year, meditative nature walks and commemorating the dead with a cemetery visit, telling ancestors’ stories and preparing a Feast of the Dead. The latter involves placing an empty setting at the dinner table for the deceased. Each person is meant to give an offering from their plate to the one that belongs to the deceased. A variation of this is called a “Samhain Dumb Supper” where the meal is conducted in silence.
“Typically, my family and I celebrate Samhain by having an Ancestor's Feast. I make foods that highlight both mine and my husband's ethnic backgrounds to honor our ancestors,” Danie Newcomb, a practicing pagan from Arkansas, told IBTimes. Her family also goes to a local cemetery to pick up trash and lay flowers. “This is a great way to show our respect for those who have passed, while also respecting the earth through cleaning the grounds,” she said.
Jasmeine Moonsong, a Wiccan high priestess in Massachusetts, says Samhain is also a time to set plans in motion for the coming year.
“An example of this would be to write down what it is we desire in the New Year and light some candles and incense that correspond to our desires in the hopes of raising the energy to attract those things,” she told IBTimes. “A simple example would be money. If you are wishing to attract more prosperity you could light green candles, use bay leaves and burn a honeysuckle candle in the hopes of attracting more wealth in the coming year.”
What’s the difference between Samhain and Halloween?
In the eighth century, the Catholic Church decided to mark Nov. 1 as All Saints Day to honor saints and martyrs. This was in part influenced by the pagan festivals already taking place during this time of the year. The mass on All Saint’s Day was called Allhallowmas in English. As a result, the night before became known as All Hallows Eve. This eventually became the popular holiday, Halloween.
While they might take place on the same day and mark the end-of-harvest season, Samhain and Halloween have different focuses. Halloween is considered a secular folk holiday celebrated by people of all denominations. Samhain is a religious observance honoring the dead. Rituals are somber and done in private.
While part of Samhain festivities involve a certain level of grief and mourning, there are celebrations or céilidh (a Gaelic term) that take place. At Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church in Wisconsin, there’s a witch’s ball where people dress up in every version of witch imaginable. The term signifies herbalists, healers, medicine persons and shamans who lived in old European villages -- not necessarily the black hat, green-faced women flying on broomsticks seen today. Although some people do dress up as those kinds of witches, Selena Fox said.
“We have a joyful evening. Some dress up outfits, sometimes in classic witch garb seen in pop culture,” Fox says, describing battery-operated wands and broomsticks she sees at the annual celebration -- especially since the release of the Harry Potter books and movies. “We have some fun with it,” she said.