Saturday, October 31, 2015

Samhain, the Original Halloween

[Note: This is a re-post from 2009. It's my best essay on Samhain, so I figured I bring it out again this year.]

Samhain (pronounced SAH-wen) was the Celtic New Year, signifying the end of the growing season and the "death" of the earth until it would be reborn in the Spring. Death as a natural part of the cycle of life is the central theme of Samhain and is at the root of all the symbolism in the holiday. The celebration of Samhain was such a major part of culture in the British Isles and parts of northern Europe that the Church appropriated and "Christianized" it, thus creating All Hallows Eve, which with the passage of time became "Halloween". With the reemergence of ecologically inclined earth-based spirituality, Samhain has been gradually coming back to some importance. And yes, I'm one of those people who celebrates Samhain rather than Halloween.

As I said above, Samhain is all about the recognition of death as a natural part of the cycle of life. Seasonally, it represents the "death" of the earth. The final harvest of the last of the crops - mostly gourds and root crops like beets and turnips - took place now. Many of the fruits set to dry to last the Winter - raisins and sultanas from grapes, figs, prunes from plums, etc. - are ready now, and many baked goods that use these are baked, like barmbrack (Irish: Báirín Breac), which is a Halloween staple in Ireland, where symbolic objects like pennies and rings are baked in the bread for children to find as prizes. Livestock is also slaughtered now to provide meat for the Winter and to thin out the herd so that it, too, can survive the "dead" months.

Another aspect of the death theme of Samhain is the belief that the border between the physical and spiritual worlds is at its weakest now. This has both positive and negative aspects. The negative aspect is the possibility that spirits with evil intent can roam the world of the living at will and spread panic. The tradition of carving gourds (although it was originally turnips that were hollowed out and carved) with diabolical faces and lit from within by candles came from this; the intent was to scare off the evil spirits.

The positive aspect of this weakened border is the possibility of communication with loved ones who have passed on. Seances are often held during Samhain, and tributes to those who have passed during the preceding year. The most beloved of these tributes is the Dumb Feast or Dumb Supper, where the table is set for both the living and the dead, with pictures and personal objects of the deceased placed at their place at the table, and the favorite foods of the deceased served at the meal. The meal is eaten in silence, which is only broken at the end of the meal when a toast is made to the deceased and stories from their lives told. The meal starts out solemnly and ends up in joy.

I love Samhain, possibly because I also love Autumn and Samhain is the very essence of an autumnal celebration. You all know my fascination with cemeteries and stonecarving, and it's usually around Samhain that I do a lot of visiting and taking pictures in historic boneyards. All in all, it's a lovely season for me, and a nostalgic one, too.

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

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