There is a place, a place I know
Where all the kindred spirits go,
Where you can hear the faerie song,
Where hopes and dreams still linger on.
The days are brightly filled with cheer
and merrily songs do fill the ear.
And as the old year passes by,
And time, it so does seem to fly,
Then I will know, the time has come
to honor those who’ve gone along.
Known by many names, including Hallowe’en, Hallowmas, and All Saints Day, the Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow En) literally means “Summer’s End” and marks the Celtic New Year. With the decay of the plants and trees, and animals going into their winter hiding, it’s easy to see Halloween as the holiday of death. But contrary to the popular belief of witches, ghosts and goblins, Samhain was a time to honor the ancestors and reconnect with the family, and didn’t hold any of the sinister meanings that many currently believe are associated with the holiday of Halloween.
The holiday itself is older than written history, and was really a pretty big deal to the ancient Celts. It marked the dark half of the year (October 31st to April 30th). At Samhain it was time to bring the cattle in from the fields, for they could not survive the harsh winter months without cover. At this time, many of the cattle would be slaughtered to provide meat for the family through the wintertime, hence the term “Blood Moon” given to the October full moon. It was also the time of year where the last bit of crops absolutely had to be brought in as the frost would soon claim anything left growing.
This would become the quiet time of the year as the days were growing so short. With less than 10 hours of daylight (soon to be less than 8 hours of daylight in December), it was important to find cause to celebrate, and spend time with friends and loved ones.
Samhain was a time to feast and celebrate. It starts at sunset on October 31 and is celebrated through until sunset on November 1. At this time of year it was important to honor the spirits of departed loved ones, and a place was set for them at the table with food from the harvest. It was believed that the dead could more easily communicate with the living, and so they walked the land. But the early Celts were not frightened of the dead, but rather believed that the dead wanted to help the living. They knew that death was a natural part of life, and that they, too, would one day walk the land on Samhain, wanting to help their own living relatives.
The Jack o’Lantern, a popular symbol of Halloween, was born in Ireland. But instead of a pumpkin, the first Jack o’Lantern was actually a radish, which was much more readily available than pumpkins (which had difficulty growing in the cold environment). Old Irish legends credit the first Jack o’Lantern to a man known as Stingy Jack. It is said that Stingy Jack was a wicked man indeed, and that one night, under the influence of much drink, Jack’s soul left his body. When the Devil came to claim him, Jack convinced him that before he took his soul off to hell, they must first have a drink together. The Devil agreed. When Jack didn’t have any money to pay for the drink, he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a sixpence to pay. Jack immediately carved a cross into the sixpence and trapped the Devil inside the coin. The Devil promised Jack that if he’d release him, he’d leave him alone for a year. Jack agreed and freed the Devil. But when the Devil came one year later, Jack again tricked the Devil by trapping him in an apple tree marked with a cross. At this point the Devil, who had about enough of Jack, agreed to leave him alone. Later when Jack finally did die, for all his wickedness he was refused entry into heaven. Now, barred from both heaven and hell, the Devil took pity on Jack and gave him a single ember from hell to light his way as he was doomed to wander the earth for eternity. Stingy Jack placed this ember into a hollowed out turnip to protect it from the cold winter.
Apple divinations were frequently performed at Samhain, as the apple harvest had been brought in and apples were plenty. Our tradition of bobbing for apples, known as apple dookin’ in Scotland, was used by young people to determine who would be the next to marry – the first one to get the apple of course! If a young woman wanted to know who her future husband may be, she would peel an apple taking care to keep the apple skin in one long ribbon. She would then toss the apple skin ribbon over her shoulder and see if the skin formed a letter. If it did, it would be the initial of her future husband.
The season of amber leaves and firelight has long been held as a time of enchantments and charms, mysteries and magic. Bonfires, hayrides, pumpkins and cooler evenings remind us of the importance of family and celebrating friendships. In many ways, we really aren’t so different from our ancestors, who placed family above all else at this time of year.
Deanna singing “All Soul’s Night (by Loreena McKennitt).