November 1 is the Celtic feast of Samhain. Samhain, Gaelic for "summer's end," was the most important of the ancient Celtic feasts.
The Celts honored the opposing balance of intertwining forces of existence: darkness and light, night and day, cold and heat, death and life. The Celtic year was divided into two seasons: the light and the dark, celebrating the light at Beltane on May 1st and the dark at Samhain on November 1st. Therefore, the Feast of Samhain marks one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, since it marked the beginning of a new dark-light cycle. The Celts observed time as proceeding from darkness to light because they understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Therefore, the Celtic year began with the season of An Geamhradh, the dark Celtic winter, and ended with Am Foghar, the Celtic harvest. The Celtic day began at dusk, the beginning of the dark and cold night, and ended the following dusk, the end of a day of light and warmth. Since dusk is the beginning of the Celtic day, Samhain begins at dusk on October 31. Samhain marks the beginning of An Geamhradh as well as the New Year.
Whereas Beltane was welcomed in the summer light with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of Samhain was at night. Oidhche Shamhna, the Eve of Samhain, was the most important part of the celebration. Villagers gathered the best of the autumn harvest and slaughtered cattle for the feast. The focus of each village's festivities was a great bonfire. Villagers cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. (Our word bonfire comes from these "bone fires.") Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire. Many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. With the great bonfire roaring, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit their hearth from the one great common flame, bonding all families of the village together. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come.
The gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, as at all the turning points of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that Oidhche Shamhna was a very holy time, when the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld were broken and the dead could return to the places where they had lived. Many rituals of Oidhche Shamhna involved providing hospitality for dead ancestors: Celts put out food and drink for the dead with great ceremony, and left their windows, doors, and gates unlocked to give the dead free passage into their homes. Bobbing for apples, another traditional Samhain pastime, was a reference to the Celtic Emhain Abhlach, "Paradise of Apples," where the dead, having eaten of the sacred fruit, enjoyed a blissful immortality. Swarms of spirits poured into our world on November Eve, but not all of these spirits were friendly. Celts carved the images of spirit-guardians onto turnips and set these "jack o'lanterns" before their doors to keep out unwelcome visitors from the Otherworld.
In the agricultural year, Samhain also marked the first day of winter, when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. The hay that would feed them during the winter must be stored in sturdy thatched shelters, tied down securely against storms. Those destined for the table were slaughtered, after being ritually devoted to the gods in pagan times. All the harvest must be gathered in -- barley, oats, wheat, turnips, and apples. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high by the hearth. It was a joyous time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come. The endless horizons of summer gave way to a warm, dim and often smoky room; the symphony of summer sounds was replaced by a counterpoint of voices, young and old, human and animal. Divination of the events of the coming year was another prominent feature of Samhain. Celts used hazelnuts, symbols of wisdom, to foretell the future.
There was also a lighthearted side to the Celtic New Year rituals. Young people would put on strange disguises and roam about the countryside, pretending to be the returning dead or spirits from the Otherworld. Celts thought the break in reality on November Eve not only provided a link between the worlds, but also dissolved the structure of society for the night. Boys and girls would put on each other's clothes, and would generally flout convention by boisterous behavior and by playing tricks on their elders and betters.
For centuries Christian people have commemorated the intercommunion of the living and the dead in the Body of Christ by honoring the dead who had professed faith in Christ during their lives, especially those who had crowned their profession with heroic deaths. Historic documents show the observance of a festival of martyrs as early as the year 270, although no month and date are attached to it. In the 4th century, an observance of this type is noted on the date of May 13th. John Chrysostom, who died in 407, says that a festival of All Saints was observed on the First Sunday after Pentecost in Constantinople at the time of his episcopate. It is believed by many scholars that the commemoration of all the saints on November 1 first originated in Ireland, spread from there to England, and then to the continent of Europe. That it had reached Rome and been adopted there early in the ninth century is attested by a letter written by Pope Gregory IV, urging that such a festival be observed throughout the Holy Roman Empire.
With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year. The night before became popularly known as Halloween, or All Hallows Eve. In Scotland and Ireland, Halloween is known as Oíche Shamhna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter's calend, or first. November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were to be offered to the souls of all who the departed and those who were waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven.
Many ancient Celtic customs proved compatible with the new Christian religion. Christianity embraced the Celtic notions of family, community, the bond among all people, and respect for the dead. Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwine in a gallimaufry (hodgepodge) of celebrations from October 31st through November 5th, all of which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel in its mystery.
A year of beauty. A year of plenty. A year of planting. A year of harvest.
A year of forests. A year of healing. A year of vision. A year of passion.
A year of rebirth. A year of rebirth. This year may we renew the earth.
Let it begin with each step we take. Let it begin with each change we make.
Let it begin with each chain we break. And let it begin every time we awake.