The Pagan festival of Samhain corresponds with the Christianised, and nowadays fully secularised, festival of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, and shares many similarities. As Halloween celebrates the eve before All Souls Day, it is a time for remembering the dead and reflecting on our ancestors and on our own mortality. While some of this is lost in modern Halloween, the ancestor veneration aspects can be seen in the related Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos.
Samhain is a Celtic name, meaning “Summer’s end” and as such, is a seasonal festival, the final harvest feast of the year. Higginbotham writes that “this is the time of year when agricultural societies decided how many animals to slaughter based on available grass and feed, the number of breeding livestock needed for the following year, and the amount of meat required to survive the winter. Serious mistakes in these calculations could mean death and starvation. For the ancient Pagans, then, Samhain was a time of death in a very real way”.
Hutton suggests that similar end-of-season feasts were celebrated “in both ancient Ireland and ancient Scandinavia, and represented by folk practices in the uplands of Wales and Scotland”. Bede refers to the month of November as “Winter-fylleth”, which may be one source of the Norse/Germanic name for the festival, Winternights.
Winternights is similar to Samahin in its focus on ancestor veneration and preparation for winter, but was not the start of the new year, as Samhain may have been for the Celts. For the Norse, the year started around the Winter Solstice, at Yule. The name itself is no doubt appropriate for the cold climes of Northern Europe, when, by November, winter was well and truly on its way, but in the South East of the UK, we are in the full flow of autumn, and still experiencing mild and sunny days. For a place-based practice, perhaps the name “Autumnights” might be more fitting.
In Sunna’s Journey: Norse liturgy through the wheel of the year, Nicholas Egelhoff writes that, “darkness sets upon the world as winter grows closer; we come together at this time to remember those that came before us, those whose blood and love flows within us, who helped to shape the world that we now shape”.
While this festival can be celebrated with all the fun and games of Halloween, Higginbotham reminds us that “it is also a time when we come to terms with death and are openly encouraged to process our fear of it”.
ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.
Egelhoff, Nicholas. Sunna’s Journey: Norse liturgy through the wheel of the year. Columbus, Garanus Publishing, 2012.
Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: an introduction to earth-centered religions. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2008.