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Samhain (On the Origins of Halloween)

I was born on the night of Samhain, when the barrier between the worlds is whisper-thin and when magic, old magic, sings its heady and sweet song to anyone who cares to hear it. ~Carolyn MacCullough, “Once a Witch”

A lot of the holidays we celebrate throughout the year have remnants of the past still attached to them. For example, the Christmas tree grew out of the pagans in Europe using branches of evergreen fir trees to decorate their homes and brighten their spirits during the winter solstice. What about Halloween though? Where did it come from? Actually, it has a pretty cool origin story, so settle in and listen up!

Samhain (sow-in) is an ancient Celtic festival from 2000 years ago that marked the end of harvest season (fall) and the beginning of the darker half of the year (winter). The Celts considered this to be a liminal time – a time when the boundary between our world and the “Otherworld” opened and/or could more easily be crossed, allowing supernatural beings, like the “Aos Si” (“spirits” or as you may know them, “fairies”), and the souls of the dead to come into our world. So, essentially a “festival for the dead”!

So, what exactly did people do during Samhain? For starters, they left offerings of food and drink outside their homes for the Aos Si to ensure that people and livestock survived the winter. And since the souls of the dead were thought to revisit their old homes seeking hospitality, feasts were held where an empty place was set at the table and the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend. The ancient Celts also built huge sacred bonfires where people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to Celtic deities. During these celebrations, it was common for the Celts to wear costumes (usually animal heads and skins), possibly as a way of disguising themselves from the Aos Si. And when the Samhain celebrations were all over, the Celts re-lit their hearth fires (which they'd extinguished early in the evenings) from the sacred bonfires to help protect them during the upcoming winter. So, kind of like one huge, wild, community block party.

That's where Halloween got it's start, though it's name and certain traditions like trick'r'treating and bobbing for apples didn't come later till Christianity came along and holidays like All Saints' Day merged with the festival of Samhain in an effort to de-paganize the pagans (okay, truthfully there is dissent amongst scholars as to whether the merging of celebrations was a conscious effort to remove old gods, etc). Samhain is still celebrated by pagans today though and is often used as a time to try to communicate with the dead. So, remember your pagan roots when you're out trick'r'treating tonight and be careful who you cross – that ghost or goblin you just passed in the dark may not be just a person in costume...

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