Samhain (October 31)

All Hallows' Eve is probably a more familiar name to you and it is the name for the Christianized form of this Sabbath. It represents the beginning of the Celtic Winter season but it is also the Celtic New Year. If we look at the Wheel of the Year, we will see that Beltane (May 1) is just across from Samhain which is the beginning of the Summer season (since Celts only acknowledged these two seasons).

Precisely because this night is on the verge of the New Year (a transitional time), it was thought that it doesn't belong to either the Old or the New Year and hence neither to this or to any other world. This is where the belief of the veil between world being the thinnest in this time came from. And then came all the stories about ghosts, demons and many other entities. But, Witches find this belief to be true and take advantage of this thin veil by practicing divination and contacting the spirits of the deceased as well as other beings which can cross from other worlds to this world more easily on this night. Or so it is thought...

I already mentioned the division of the Sabbaths into the Sun and earth Sabbaths. Samhain isn't a solstice or an equinox (hence it is not a Sun festival), it has to fall under the category of earth festivals. So what actually happened to the earth in this time of the year?

Samhain is pronounced /'sawin/, which is simply an old name for the month of November. The weather was already quite cold about this time of year and this was a time for stocking up on meat which used to be preserved using salt (this was the only was of preserving meat...and does it remind you of consecrating rituals? hehe) and keeping it in a cold and dry place. People needed to have something to eat when the winter came. Also, people would get rid of any surplus of cattle in order to have less mouths to feed and more food to eat. In short, this was a time of concern about the advancing Winter.

All of the crops had to be gathered by October 31 because it was thought that what was left was eaten by an evil spirit called Pooka which would plunder the fields and torment passer-bys. It was thought that his most common disguise was a wild black horse.

The aforementioned tradition of contacting the spirits of the deceased was called Feile na Marbh (pronounced /failu nu morv/) or in translation the Feast of the Dead. Because of the veil being so thin, the spirits could join their loved ones in this world who would be gathered around a warm fire feasting.

People would spite this period of darkness by being merry and celebrating with heaps of food and drink and emphasizing fertility and life which would soon return with the coming of the Spring.

In even earlier times, there was probably some tradition that included any sort of sacrifice (according to some stories, these were often social outcasts like criminals, but in others, it was even the King himself). These sacrifices could have been carried out using fire. In Norse and Celtic mythology, there are even stories about Kings who died in their houses because of the houses catching fire. Luckily, all of these sacrifices later became symbolic.

Even today you can see bonfires being lit on Samhain and people gathering around them and being entertained with fireworks....al of this, of course, in good intent and with the goal of simply having fun. In Scotland and Wales, family fires called Samhnagan (in Scotland Coel Coeth) were lit. Each family would prepare their own fire on the nearest hill. You can still see this tradition live and kicking in some parts of these countries.

The tradition of divination on this day is logical. I have mentioned the thin veil between world, which can, if you believe in it, justify this tradition. But there is also the factor of human curiosity - everyone wanted to find out what the incoming Winter would be like and how they would survive it. In the beginning, the Druids were the only ones who would predict the future, but this later spread out into the common population. Young women would divine in order to see who their future husband would be (either by invoking his depiction in the mirror or by the way nuts would jump while being fried). There was also the tradition of the young woman preparing a tasty meal and setting it out for her future husband. He wouldn't, of course, be able to resist it and would then come to eat it. Upon eating the meal, he would be forever linked to the lady. Though he wouldn't arrive in human form but in astral form (this is yet another element of the thin veil background story).

The traditional food for this festival includes nuts and apples and in Scotland, Sowens are pretty
popular. Sowes were supposedly made using the starch remaining on the inner husks of oats after milling. These husks would then be left a few days to soak in water and ferment. The liquor produced would then be strained off and left aside for the starch matter to settle. The final liquid part can be drunk but the solid parts were edible. They had to be cooked in water with a bit of salt under they were thick enough. Most often, they were served with butter or were dipped in milk which would give a bit of sweetness to their sour taste.

The traditional meal of Ireland for Samhain is called the Barm back - a dark bread or cake with pieces of dried fruit in it. In Croatia, this cake is knows as the Fruitcake or even the Christmas cake (since it is made on Christmas here also). You will often come across soul cakes for which you can find many recipes on the internet. I'll just leave you to decide what to make for this occasion ;)

During the feasts, there were often a few chairs left empty as well as a bit of food in case the spirits decided to join the living for the celebration.

You are all probably familiar with the fact that this night is also called Halloween. Typically, children go from house to house asking for treats and if they aren't given what they asked for, the make your life a living hell :D this is called Trick-or-treating. This is also, believe it or not, an old tradition. This night was also knows as the Mischief night. This is the night when the God of Mischief reigns surpreme but we aren't here to shun him but accept him and join in with the mischief and merriment. We have to learn to spite and laugh at all the bad things in life which could await us that winter. 

Since this festival is both merry and serious, it is recommended that it be celebrated two times; once in peace with your coven or alone (whichever you decide) and the second time with your family and/or friends where you can dance and celebrate and indulge in the happy side. Preparations can include carving pumpkins (or oranges or beets if you don't have any pumpkins at hand), put on masks and have fun according to the local traditions (or any other ones if you prefer those).

I would also like to note the importance of the tradition of carving pumpkins. Namely, Witches would carry these canldes/pumpkins while walking towards the place where a ritual was to be held on this night. They would light the way both for them and the spirits. It was only a matter of time before the carvings started resembling the faces of the souls they supposedly lead. 

By the way, when you do the ritual part (alone or in a group), leave out the sacrifice part :p haha. This tradition has nothing to do in modern times. A symbolical sacrifice of a bit of leftover food and drink for the God and Goddess is more than enough. Focus on the other aspects of this festival; feasts, divination, communicating with other entities (if you believe in them), showing respect for the deceased, affirming life and having a good laugh.

Personally, I don't believe that spirits walk around with us no matter how thin the veil may be, but that is my opinion. If you believe in this, then research it before putting it into practice. Keep in mind that Witches don't "invoke" spirits but ask them politely to join them. I believe in reincarnation and I find it quite rude (no matter how politely you may ask) to call upon a spirit and disturb its rest in the other world.

When preparing your ritual space, try to decorate it with fitting symbols (pumpkins, apples nuts or even mirrors). If you can't make a fire, then simply put more candles around. Another option is lighting a small fire in your cauldron (it is always better to have a fire not matter how small). The appropriate colors include red, black, orange and white and as for the food and drinks, I recommend you have at least something with nuts (be it a cake made with nuts of actual nuts). Like our ancestors used to get rid of surplus cattle, you can get rid of unneeded/harmful things so you bear a smaller burden during the Winter. This can include burning reminders of unpleasant events/times or even writing down unpleasant experiences and memories  and then burning that piece of paper in a fire or on the flame of a candle.
Overall, try to stay true to the traditions and character of Samhain.

Good luck with the celebration :) I hope you will have enough time to get everything ready and use at least one of these ideas in your ritual/party.

Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

Sabbath: Samhain
Pronunciation: /'sowin/
Date: October 31
Other names: All Hallows' Eve, Halloween,
the Feast of the Dead, Celtic New
Year, Ancestors' night, All Saints'
Eve, the Last Harvest, the Blood
Phase of the God: Dies (the Oak King)
Phase of the
Mourns the God
(the Crone)
Symbolism: End of the Summer, showing
respect for the deceased
Divination (in smoke/fire/
mirrors), leaving food out,
carving pumpkins, lighting fires
Symbols and
Red, black, orange, white,
pumpkins, apples, nuts
Traditional food: Soul cakes, Fruitcakes (or anything
else made with pumpkins), nuts,
Apple pancakes
Mini pancakes
Pumpkin cake
Pumpkin & apple pie
Sage, apple, mint, nutmeg

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