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Samhain - Celebration of our Ancestors and ushering in the Dark Time

Samhain is a pagan religious festival originating from an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. In modern times, Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “sow-win”) is usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in “the dark half of the year.” Those that celebrate believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and the world of Spirit or Otherworld.

As darkness falls and families light their pumpkin Jack-o'-lanterns, they are, perhaps unknowingly, repeating the ancient traditions of honoring the dead and marking the beginning of the ‘dark half’ of the year.
Halloween (Samhain) is an annual celebration held largely in the western world on October 31st. Starting in the evening, children, and sometimes adults, dress in masks and costumes, traditionally as ghostly figures, witches, or the undead – vampires, zombies, skeletons. They go knocking door-to-door, requesting treats, or else threatening a mischievous trick upon the household. Typical activities of the modern observance include costume parties, pumpkin carving, trick-or-treating, lighting bonfires, playing pranks and more.
Hallowe’en, a shortened form of "All Hallows' Evening" is the echo of Celtic harvest festivals of pre-Christian Europe. Observed now in several countries around the world, it is the evening before ‘All Hallows Day’, when saints and martyrs are remembered by people of many Christian denominations. This ritual, however, coincides with (and some scholars suggest co-opted) the ancient observance of Samhain.

Wikipedia describes this pre-Christian custom: “Many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain. It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. As at Beltane, special bonfires were lit. These were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers and there were many rituals involving them. Samhain (like Beltane) was seen as a liminal time, when the spirits or fairies could more easily come into our world.” Fires, and later candles, were lit to symbolize the sun and hold back the dark of the oncoming winter.

Dead and departed relatives play a central role in the tradition, as the connection between the living and dead was believed stronger at Samhain, as there was a chance to communicate. Souls of the deceased were thought to return to their homes, feasts were held and places were set at tables as a way to welcome them home. Food and drink was offered to the unpredictable spirits and fairies to ensure continued health and good fortune.  This feast was declared a “Dumb Supper”.

“Dumb,” in this case, is a synonym for mute or silent, as in many traditions,  the rule was that a dumb supper be conducted in complete silence so as to hear deceased loved ones in the event they tried to communicate. Americans, especially in rural regions, perpetuated the custom into the 20th century. From Oxfordshire to Ozark county the ritual was performed with “considerable conformity.


The idea that souls return home on a certain day of the year is repeated across many cultures around the world. Día de Muertos , or the Day of the Dead is a similar holiday in Mexico celebrating and honoring family members who have died. Similarly, this falls on October 31st, and November 1st- 2nd.
Samhain saw a metamorphosis due to the early church. In The History of Halloween or Samhain Jack Santino writes, “As a result of their efforts to wipe out ‘pagan’ holidays, such as Samhain, the Christians succeeded in effecting major transformations in it. In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples' customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.”

In the 12th century, holy days of obligation across Europe involved town criers dressed all in black, ringing mournful bells and calling on Christians to remember the poor souls of the dead. Special ‘soul cakes’ would be baked and shared. This custom of “souling” was shared in England, Germany, Belgium, Austria and Italy, and is thought to be the early precursor of trick-or-treating.

Eventually, mumming and guising (going door-to-door in disguise and performing in exchange for food) was taken up in a depiction of these ancient customs, and pranks were a way of confounding evil spirits. Pranks at Samhain date as far back as 1736 in Scotland and Ireland, and this led to Samhain being dubbed “Mischief Night”.

Many of the modern practices for Halloween date to 19th century England and North America. Fortune telling and divination played a part in celebrations. Games were played intending to divine one’s future. Nuts and fruit featured in the eating and drinking games, and soul cakes were prepared.


For Halloween, pumpkins are hollowed out, and spooky faces are carved into them, creating Jack-o'-lanterns. Candles are then lit inside the pumpkins, creating eerie lanterns, and serving as signals that a household observes Halloween. Pumpkins are frequently used today as they’re easier to carve and a symbol of harvest, but the original lanterns in Ireland and Scotland were carved from turnips or potatoes. These veggie lanterns were used to frighten off evil spirits by guisers, and were a motif of the Irish Christian folk tale of Stingy Jack, a wandering soul, who was denied entry into both heaven and hell.


In fact, the name, jack-o'-lantern, comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, home of the pumpkin, and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities. According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form.

Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

Observing Halloween is not without controversy. Some religions discourage participation, suggesting that it trivializes Samhain, it has satanic associations, or it is inappropriate tribute to paganism or the occult. However, the modern practices heavily influenced by commercialization and popular culture differ from the ancient traditions of Samhain and All Hallows’ Eve. Still, the connection exists and the history is clear - when you light a Jack-o'-lantern and brighten the darkening season, you’re carrying on an age-old tradition that bridges cultures around the world and reaffirms our connection to our departed loved ones.

Samhain Blessing 🎃

Amara

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