My first introduction to Samhain (pronounced SAH-win or SOW-in) came through, of all things, a Danzig song called Soul on Fire. This, despite the Celtic blood flowing through my veins. I can’t quote the song (copyright laws), but if you’re so inclined, you can check out the lyrics or give the song itself a listen. (Yup, it’s a little dark.) For what it’s worth, back when I listened to Glenn Danzig’s music (including the Misfits–who I still kind of ♥), I had burgundy-colored hair and wore Doc Martens with baby doll dresses. Altogether, a sign of the times (or at least of my times) in the nineties.
My introduction to Samhain might have occurred in a dark sort of context, but the ancient Celtic celebration was about a different kind of darkness. The Celts recognized two seasons: summer and winter; Samhain marked the turn from summer’s light and warmth to the chill and darkness of winter.
Ruins, Ireland. Image via Unsplash/PublicDomainPictures
Samhain was, for the Celts, the beginning of a new year. It was honored accordingly, with celebrations and feasts. Monuments also captured the sunrise on Samhain, which was situated halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. Since the ancient Celts counted nights, rather than days, the celebration of Samhain traditionally began at sundown on October 31st and carried into November 1st.
Image via Unsplash/freestocks.org
Samhain not only shares a date with Halloween, but many of its traditions also live on in the modern-day holiday. Likewise, it bears a strong resemblance to the Mexican Dia de los Muertos.
It was believed that the veil thinned between the living and the dead during Samhain, a time when plants died back and animals retreated to their dens. Spirits would walk the earth, visiting loved ones or, in the case of evil spirits, spreading harm. People refrained from going out at night, or would go out only in disguise, hoping to conceal their identity from darker energies. They might place a candle in a window to welcome back loved ones who had passed, or carve a face into a turnip (the precursor to today’s jack-o-lantern) to ward off negative spirits. The dearly departed were invited to attend the feasts of Samhain, while offerings were left for nature spirits, in hopes of receiving blessings in return.
Image via wikicommons, unable to find original attribution
Samhain was (and is) a celebration of contrasts.
People lit communal bonfires (*originally called bonefires, with bones from feasts added as offerings), to bring light even as the sun began its fading. The gathering of crops and slaughtering of livestock meant sustaining human life over the long winter. Plants were dying, but seeds could be sown in the yet-unfrozen ground. Dormant fields would be fed with the remains of unharvested crops and with the ashes of bonfires. It was a waning time, a time of rest in preparation for future growth.
Image via Unsplash/StockSnap
There’s no denying that Samhain is a time of great transition. Like the ancient Celts, modern humans can use it as an opportunity to look behind us–even as we prepare to turn forward.
Samhain can help us remember and honor lost loved ones; it can help us reflect upon our hard work and remind us to reap what we have sown. This is a time when we can reaffirm bonds among family and friends as life draws in from outdoors. It can help us lay the groundwork for creative pursuits and other activities.
Samhain marks a time for us to rest and recharge. We can plant the seeds of future growth, and prepare for those first steps that will lead us to a wide open run, come spring.
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