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The History of Samhain

Samhain (pronounced sow-en), is a Celtic word meaning summer’s end.  It is the origin of the current celebration of Halloween.

The day of Samhain is considered the pagan new year, a tradition of dating back to the ancient Celts some 2000 years ago.  The Celts believed that the summer season came to an end on October 31st, and that November 1st marked the beginning of winter and the start of a new year.

Although the tradition of Halloween is of pagan origin, the true holiday of Samhain is actually on November 1st.  However, Samhain celebrations began at dusk the night before, on the 31st of October.

In Celtic tradition, fields were cleaned and crops were burned in bonfires which were used as sacrificial offerings to the Celtic deities.  In the past, the Celts also offered animals in sacrifice in order to show gratitude to the gods and goddesses for the year’s harvests. The bonfires further represented a cleansing of the old in preparation for the coming new year.

In many cultures it is believed that the veil between the physical and spiritual realm is at its thinnest during this time, causing spirit sightings and prompting contact with souls who have passed or reside in other dimensions.  During one common festivity of Samhain, the people dressed in costume and danced around bonfires.  The dances often were a depiction and celebration of the the wheel of life and the cycle of life and death. The costumes were worn to honor the dead and as a representation of souls being freed to move on to the next incarnation (an event the Celts believe occurred on Samhain eve).  Dressing in costume was also thought to ward away the evil spirits that were freed on the eve of Samhain, as well as honor and find favor with the deities that had assisted them throughout the year.

With the advent of Christianity, many Celtic traditions were adapted by the early Church in England. Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st as All Saints Day, and decreed October 31st as All-Hallows-eve, the day that we now call Halloween.  Although the two holidays share some similarities, the ancient religious celebration of Samhain is vastly different than the tradition of Halloween that is celebrated today.

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