Monday, October 31, 2016

Samhain 2016

It's Samhain (SAH-wen) time again, the old Celtic New Year that was later "Christianized" into Halloween. Now we pass from the light half of the year into the dark half. Now the earth goes fallow and prepares for the sleep of Winter. It's a time of transition, a time when dividing lines dissolve and those who have passed on can come to visit, and the living can in turn visit those passed on. We give honor to our ancestors and memorialize our loved ones who have passed on. And we feast on the products of the harvest, and preserve as much of it as we can. Grain becomes flour, barley becomes beer, meat is smoked or dried, grapes become wine and other fruits become brandy, and vegetables are canned or pickled. We get ready for Winter!

And as I do every Samhain, I'll post some favorite videos to liven up the virtual celebration. This first one is an old favorite, an animation project from the 1980s that was featured on PBS, set to Camille Saint-Saëns' tone poem "Danse Macabre".

This next one is another old favorite, Canadian musician Loreena McKennitt's "All Souls Night", one of her best-known songs, written as her tribute to Samhain. I usually post a video of her performance of this one from her concert in the Alhambra, but that one seems to have disappeared from YouTube. That's okay, this cut from the original album is just as beautiful!

One more video. Nowadays on Halloween the kiddies dress up in costumes and go from house to house eliciting goodies from the residents by shouting "Trick or treat!" This comes from the old Samhain and early All Hallows Eve custom of going from house to house in groups (adults and children all!) begging for goodies (in those days small cakes and fruit) that represent the harvest. You didn't get that for free; you had to sing for it. One of the goodies given out back then was a small, spiced oat cake embedded with dried fruit called a soul cake. "The cakes, often simply referred to as souls, are given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who go from door to door during the days of Allhallowtide singing and saying prayers "for the souls of the givers and their friends". The practice in England dates to the medieval period, and was continued there until the 1930s, by both Protestant and Catholic Christians. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes continues in some countries today, and it is seen as the origin of the practice of trick-or-treating." (Quoted from Wikipedia)  This song, "A-Souling", is an old song collected by a folklorist in 1891, which traces back to medieval times and is sung by the soulers going from house to house. Pagan singer/musicologist Kirsten Lawrence was struck that the beginning notes were the same as the mediaeval plainchant Dies Irae, "Day of Judgment", calling the people to repent and pray for the dead. It seemed plausible that the tune could be a folk corruption of the chant as children and beggars asked for cakes in return for praying for the dead. This version of "A-Souling" is performed by the New Zealand group Lothlórien and is my personal favorite! (You'll need to click this link because YouTube seems to have disabled embedding for this video.)

So a Blessed Samhain and a Happy Halloween to all!

Photos, graphics, and text © 2016 by A. Roy Hilbinger 


  1. One of my favorite times of the year!

  2. I never read about soul cakes before. Always a pleasure to learn new things, even at my age. :)