By Amber C. Snider
Halloween is one of the most popular holidays in the United States, but its roots go back to an ancient Celtic Harvest festival known as Samhain.
Samhain, also referred to as the Witches’ New Year and pronounced “sow-win,” was a major festival in the Celtic tradition that took place on the night of October 31st through November 1st. The holiday marks the end of the harvest season and the approaching winter. It was believed to be a time when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, which meant spirits were not only free to roam the earth, but also communicate with the living.
Humans could call upon their ancestors for guidance and used this midpoint between the seasons to honor the spirits through a series of rituals and festivities (including bonfires, feasts, sacrifices) that often lasted for three days and three nights. The Celts often set out offerings in the form of food, drinks, and beloved tokens to honor their dead.
But with all those ghostly souls freely roaming around the earth, some may have been unwanted or even malevolent – and that’s where the tradition of dressing up came in. “According to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Celts began the Halloween tradition of wearing costumes, often animal skin to hide themselves from spirits, and masks to impersonate ancestors who had preceded them to the spirit world,” reports National Geographic editor Debra Adams Simmons. It’s this practice that led to our current tradition of dressing up in scary costumes to ward away any malicious spooks.
Early evidence shows us that not only was this an important holiday for the Celts, it was also mandatory for the community. While the other seasonal holidays celebrated rebirth and the renewal of life, Samhain was a festival for the dead. Despite the desecration of many ancient pagan practices over the centuries, Samhain has survived as “Halloween” in our secular, modern culture.
In another region of the world, in what is now modern day Mexico, the ancient peoples’ also conducted rituals and held festivals to honor their dead. Dia de los Muertos (also known as the Day of the Dead) is a syncretization of Indigenous American beliefs with those of the Roman Catholic Church, culminating in All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) on the Catholic calendar – just as Samhain coincides with Halloween.
So while you’re carving pumpkins, rewatching Practical Magic, or dressing up for the festivities over the next two weeks, remember to take some time out to also honor those who have passed on and all those ancestors who’ve shaped you into the person you are today. The honoring of the dead is at the heart of Samhain, as well as paying homage to our long lineage of human life.
Blessings to all this Samhain!