Samhain Traditions and Lore in Ancient Ireland and Modern Wicca


You probably celebrate Halloween by dressing up in a costume or binge-watching scary movies, but do you know the holiday’s origins? The roots of Halloween can be traced back to Samhain (pronounced SOW-win), an annual celebration that originated with the ancient Celts. The Celts celebrated eight “Sabbats” throughout the year—festivals that marked a turning point in nature’s annual cycle, kind of like cheering in each new season. Samhain was held October 31-November 1, and it represented the start of winter, the end of the harvest period, and the end of the year.

Of course, that wasn’t all. There may have been some pretty dark and disturbing traditions going on related to fire and sacrifice, as you know if you’ve seen The Wicker Man. On a SLIGHTLY less terrifying note, the ancient Celts believed that every Samhain, the invisible veil that separated the worlds of the living and the dead was it its thinnest—particularly at sundown. This was a time to make contact with the dead, which they did by lighting bonfires and lanterns to lead lonely or heartsick spirits home to visit with their family.

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As Christianity’s influence grew, Samhain traditions were incorporated into All Saints’ Day on November 1. The day before it became known as All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween. Some even speculate that trick-or-treating began as a Samhain tradition, in which children said prayers for the dead in exchange for food or money. October 31 and November 1 are days during which people have, for centuries, honored their dead, told fortunes, planned for the year ahead, and celebrated what they achieved in the previous year.

Over the past several decades, Samhain has seen a resurgence in popularity as it has been embraced by Wiccans and others who draw from pagan traditions. It’s now often called “Witches’ New Year.” Here are some ways you can celebrate (no sacrifices needed).

Honor your ancestors with a “dumb” (as in silent) supper.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, the tradition of the “dumb supper” involves a meal eaten in total silence. Decorate a table with photos and mementos of the people you wish to remember and celebrate. Add candles and flowers (choosing colors, scents, and blooms that evoke a memory) and put out extra plates to represent the people you’re memorializing.

Light the candles at the beginning of the supper to welcome the spirits in, and then eat dinner in silence so that you are super-sensitive to the vibes in the room—and are able to reflect on your own memories and emotions in peace.

Light it up

The Celts would gather around a communal village fire on Samhain, then take a burning branch home to light their own hearth. These communal fires would be placed all around a village to help guide spirits home. Having your own bonfire might be a bit ambitious (though if you have the space, go for it), but you can certainly focus on the lighting in your home. Candles, colored lightbulbs, new lamps—get them all out and create a festive mood.

Create a centerpiece

If you have a table, windowsill, or mantle you use for decorations (or even an altar), then consider creating a temporary Samhain display. Think of it as something you can gaze at as you reflect on all the things that you’ve achieved this year (like surviving 2020). Add orange, black, white, and red candles; crystals such as tourmaline, obsidian, or amber; and fall flourishes like colorful leaves, pumpkins, corn dolls, pinecones, chestnuts, and even a Halloween decoration or two.

Tell your fortune

This IS the time of year to get your fortune told, either by yourself (dig out those tarot or oracle cards) or by seeing a professional tarot reader (hi, it’s me!). Focus your questions on what the next 12 months may bring (or what the past 12 months have brought) and seek guidance for the year ahead.

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