Samhain: The pagan roots of Halloween

You probably celebrate Halloween by dressing up in costume, trick-or-treating with your kids, or binge-watching your favorite scary movies, but do you know the origins of this beloved holiday? What we now refer to as Halloween is inspired by an almost 2,000-year-old annual tradition, initially celebrated by ancient Celts, called Samhain (pronounced SOW-win.)

Samhain is one of the eight sabbats the Celts celebrated to mark the turning points in nature’s annual cycle.

A way to greet the new season and bid the past season farewell. Samhain is usually celebrated from October 31st to November 1st and marks the end of the harvest year and the beginning of winter. The creators of this festival believed that there was an invisible veil separating our world from the underworld. Samhain was a time when this veil was temporarily lifted, allowing the living to commune with the dead.

Not unlike Día de Los Muertos, a holiday mainly celebrated in Mexico, the ancient festival of Samhain was partly centered around honoring family members who’ve passed. Families would host “Dumb Suppers,” where the living would set the dinner table with photos and memorabilia of deceased family members, inviting them to join the living for a meal. Empty chairs were left for the dead, favorite stories were shared, and food set aside for the dead was burned when the meal ended.

In the 5th century, as Christianity gained popularity in Celtic communities, leaders attempted to reframe Samhain as a Christain holiday.

It was moved to mid-May and intended to celebrate saints and martyrs. This didn’t last long, and it was moved back to November 1st and renamed All Saint’s Day soon after.

Over the centuries, Christianity was unable to put an end to the pagan aspects of the holiday. October 31st quickly became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Halloween retained many pagan practices and was adopted in America in the 19th century as Irish immigrants brought past traditions to their new home.

Trick-or-treating was one of these traditions, derived from the Irish practice of mumming.

Mumming was the act of putting on costumes, going door-to-door, and singing songs for the dead. Home owners gave cakes out to the children as payment. Halloween pranks were also popular with Irish and Scottish pagans, although these ancient tricks were blamed on fairies instead of rowdy teenagers.

In the 1980s, there was an unexpected revival of the traditional Samhain festival as Wicca gained popularity. The Wicca version of Samhain merged ancient practices of paganism with more modern American traditions, adding their practice of honoring nature and ancestors into the mix. Wiccans also consider Samhain their New Year, using this magical night to reflect on the past year and set intentions for the next. This is why you might sometimes hear Samhain or Halloween referred to as The Witch’s New Year.

If you’ve seen movies such as “The Wicker Man,” you know that there are some pretty disturbing traditions I’ve decided not to mention here. Although these sacrifices and fire rituals are extremely interesting to learn about, I thought I’d keep it light and let you explore those aspects of Samhain’s history on your own.  

Ways You Can Celebrate Samhain This Year:

  • Hold your own Dumb Supper to honor your ancestors

Set out photos and mementos of the people you wish to remember. Decorate the table with candles and flowers, choosing colors and scents that evoke memories, and put out place settings to represent the people you’re celebrating. Light the candles at the start of supper to welcome the spirits, using this moment to sit in silence and allow yourself to reflect on your own memories and emotions. Spend the rest of the meal sharing stories and enjoying each other’s company as well as the company of any loved ones who have passed. I highly recommend making “soul cakes” to enjoy during this meal.

  • Create a Samhain centerpiece

This centerpiece can be placed at a table, windowsill, or bookcase, really anywhere that you can find space. Consider it something to gaze at as you celebrate your accomplishments over the past year. Add orange, black, white, or red candles, crystals (tourmaline and obsidian are perfect for Samhian), fall foliage, mini pumpkins, corn dolls, pine cones, and anything else you feel fits the season. Some people like to include feathers at their Samhain altars or centerpieces to represent the souls of the dead they wish to remember and celebrate. If you choose to do this, please return the feathers to nature once Samhain has passed.

  • Host a friends’ night to toast the Witch’s New Year

Invite your friends over, instructing them to come dressed in black and bearing a snack. Prepare spooky drinks for each other, adding dry ice in a tea strainer for the cauldron effect. Have some fun making autumnal flower crowns or wreaths with dying vegetation and flowers. Take turns reading each other’s tarot cards, seeking guidance and focusing on what the next 12 months may bring. End the night with a witchy movie such as Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic, or The Witch. During the movie, ask your friends to write down their intentions for the coming year on tiny scrolls. Tie up the scrolls with ribbon or twine and place them into small vials that everyone can take home with their flower crowns or wreaths as a party favor.

Samhain wreath crown