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Samhain Traditions and History

Samhain (pronounced 'sow'inn') is a very important date in the Pagan calendar, for it marks the Feast of the Dead. Many Pagans also celebrate it as the old Celtic New Year.

You have to understand our ancestors had no way of knowing what the long winter months would bring them. Life was hard, and unlike today, our ancestors could not visit the local supermarket. The final harvest was important to them to sustain them through the long hard winter months ahead.

They brought their animals down from the hills and had to make a decision to keep the healthy animals for another season and slaughter those they didn't think would make it through the winter.

Samhain has been celebrated in Britain for centuries and has its origin in Pagan Celtic traditions. It was the time of year when the veil between this world and the Otherworld were believed to be at their thinnest: when the spirits of the dead could most readily mingle with the living once again.

To most modern Pagans, while death is still the central theme of the festival, this does not mean it is a morbid event or something to be feared. Old age is valued for its wisdom, and dying is accepted as a part of life as necessary and welcome as birth.

While Pagans, like people of other faiths, always honor and show respect for their dead, this is particularly marked at Samhain. Loved ones who have passed on are remembered and their spirits often invited to join the living at the dinner table.

Today we may choose also to place a photograph of our loved ones on the table, as I do, and I light a candle for them. I choose a blue candle for this purpose. I light an additional candle for all those who have given their lives in the service of our country.

Death also symbolizes endings, and Samhain is therefore not only a time for reflecting on mortality, but also on the passing of relationships, jobs, projects, and other significant changes in life.

Samhain is a time for taking stock of the past and coming to terms with it. In order to move on and look forward to the future, I make a list for this and I burn the list of items that are not in my best interest, the things that I want to end.

Ancient Celtic celebrations

Not only did the Celts believe the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead dissolved on this night, they thought that the presence of the spirits helped their priests to make predictions about the future.

To celebrate Samhain, the Druids built huge sacred bonfires. People brought harvest food and sacrificed animals to share a communal dinner in celebration of the festival.

During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes - usually animal heads and skins.

After the festival, they re-lit the fires in their homes from the sacred bonfire to help protect them, as well as keep them warm during the winter months.

Today many enjoy the fun of Halloween with trick-or-treating. Prior to trick-or-treating, children would go out causing mischief. Known as Mischief Night, this was trick-or-treating without the treat. We would make lanterns from turnips in the same way pumpkins are used today. This was mainly a Northern tradition in England. As the nights draw in, a small band of mischief-makers prepare for an annual night of mayhem. Mischief Night is their chance to let loose and cause a little bit of chaos. It is believed to go back to the 1700?s.

All Saints' Day (also known as All Hallows' Day or Hallowmas) is the day after All Hallows' Eve (Hallowe'en). It is a feast day celebrated on November 1st by Anglicans and Roman Catholics. It is an opportunity for believers to remember all saints and martyrs, known and unknown, throughout Christian history. Remembering saints and martyrs and dedicating a specific day to them each year has been a Christian tradition since the 4th century AD.

by David Speight

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