Long before we started to carve spooky faces into pumpkins, there was a pagan festival that was celebrated across the UK to honour the darker months of the year.
Hailing from Ireland and Scotland, Samhain (pronounced Sow-ein) is the name most pagans still use. It’s an occasion so sacred that early texts decreed anyone caught wielding a weapon or committing a crime during this festival would be executed. So if you want to celebrate your Halloween like a pagan this year, here are six things that you absolutely need to know.
1. The reason for the season
Before the Gregorian calendar told us 31st October existed, Samhain was celebrated on the three nights of the late October or early November full moon. The Celtic day ended and began at sunset, and their year did the same, ending and beginning at winter. Samhain was believed to be suspended in time, belonging to neither the old year nor the new, causing natural order to be thrown into chaos.
Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland and sites such as Tlachtga align with sunrise at Samhain, suggesting the belief in the thinning barrier between our world and that of the dead dates back to at least these times. As you’d expect from a Pagan New Year's Eve party, it was marked by great feasts and bonfires to keep settlements safe from evil spirits, and eventually bless livestock returning from summer pastures.
2. Spruce up the place
Fires in the home would be left to die out on the first day of Samhain celebrations. While it was out, the last of the year’s harvest would be brought in. Much of the work carried out at this time was fortifying homes and animal enclosures in preparation for the imminent winter.
A common ritual for driving away bad spirits was to sweep the house, ending at the front door and then banging the boundary to the property three times with the broom. Fresh fires were then laid in the hearth ready to be lit when deemed safe. These would contain dried flowers, resin, pine cones, or fragranced wood to welcome sweeter spirits into the house.
3. Eco-friendly decorations
Forget plastic skeletons in your Halloween decor, instead opt for the far more eco-friendly pagan alternative and use the real thing. Druids would dust off the skulls of their ancestors and circle great bonfires with them to call on their wisdom and honour them.
Many Samhain rituals still call for the addition of a bleached bone. Nowadays it’s likely to be a cast-off from Sunday’s roast chicken, but historically, antlers and boar tusks would’ve been used in decorations and costumes. Snake and horse bones were considered particularly powerful and would be incorporated into charms and fetishes to adorn homes. Back further still, those bones would have been ancestral or those of enemies, depending on the desired outcome.
4. An apple a day
Apples have long-standing associations with the underworld. Along with their abundance during autumn it’s unsurprising that they feature heavily in Samhain feasts. As well as turnips, traditionally apples would be carved and salted, giving them the appearance of shrunken heads with grotesque faces to be positioned looking out of windows.
But it was the arrival of the Romans that propelled apples into the Samhain spotlight. Apple ducking (or bobbing) was originally a promise of marriage with the first to catch an apple in their teeth the next to wed. The apples in question could be floating on water or dangling from a string. However, it quickly became a popular game, with anyone catching a face full of fruit securing themselves good fortune for the coming year.
5. Dark divinations
With the veil between worlds at its thinnest, it was the perfect time to seek answers from the dead or the fae. An apple pip or hazelnut could be placed in the hot embers of a fire to tell you of a lover's interest or if someone was an enemy, depending on how it behaved.
The hazelnut could foretell darker events too. If you carved your initials and left them in the fire on this night, they would foretell whether you would survive the year. Whereas going to a church porch at midnight could show you everyone expected to die in the coming year, providing you were brave enough to risk seeing yourself amongst them. Along with regular means of divination such as cards and runes, necromancy was also fabled to yield excellent results at Samhain, if you needed to seek answers directly from a cadaver.
6. Dearly departed
Certain areas were to be avoided during Samhain. Burial mounds and later cemeteries are perhaps the obvious ones. But also, crossroads, bridges, and boundaries between land were all avoided for fear of meeting the not-so-grateful dead.
Once the public revelry was finished, households would begin their private celebrations by lighting their own fires from the ceremonial bonfire. The sweet smoke gave an invitation to safely welcome dead ancestors seeking warmth or to impart wisdom. Despite actively inviting the dead into homes, it was widely agreed best not to be awake when they got there, as they’re quite easily offended. Offerings would be left to appease them. Those who got the presents right were treated to blessings, while those missing a trick suffered malevolent consequences.