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Samhain – The Original Halloween

Halloween might just be the most fun of the modern holidays celebrated by the English-speaking West. Modern Halloween seems to largely be a North American thing. Most other countries do not celebrate it, at least, not in the same way.

Corporations worldwide have latched onto the concept of Halloween as a way to market their products and services. Invariably, there'll be a display of bats or pumpkins applied to storefronts as a way to indicate that they are aware of the date. Some places may even offer special products to mark their involvement in the festivities.

All of that is far removed from the idea of kids dressing up as monsters and heroes, and going door to door for candy. Even further removed from the Pagan harvest festival that started it all, Samhain.

Samhain – The Veil Thins

Ancient Celtic Pagans believed that the night of 31 October was a particularly magical one. This first night of the darker half of the year brought with it a thinning of the veil between our world and the realm of spirit.

Ancestor spirits, faeries, gods, and monsters were able to cross over between sunset on the 31st October, and dawn on the 1st November. These spirits would be tempted to cause mischief in the world of the living.

Many Neolithic Passage Tombs were aligned with the sunrise on 1 November. These tombs were seen as entrances to the spirit world, which “opened” during Samhain.

The festival marked the last day of the harvest. Hearth fires were left to burn out in family homes while the harvest was collected. After which, the faithful would gather at communal bonfire sites where a Druid priest would conduct a protection rite. Then the bonfire would be lit using a stone wheel that represented the sun.

Some of the oldest Samhain traditions are lost to history. Christianity made several attempts to suppress this flamboyant festival. As a result, Samhain's traditions weren't recorded until the early-modern period.

Some believe that the festival involved animal sacrifice. This is because cattle would be brought down from their summer pastures during this time. Cattle would then be slaughtered to thin the herd (preserving feed for the winter), and as a way to stockpile food for the humans.

Feasts and bonfires played a large role in the festival of Samhain. The bonfires were believed to protect the living from the Otherworld invaders. Portions of the feasts were set aside as an offering to the spirits, and faeries. These offerings were given as a way to bribe the denizens of the Otherworld to ensure safety during the winter months.

Celts would set aside a spot at their feast table for the spirits of their dead relatives. Ancestor spirits would seek hospitality from, and the company of their descendants.

Every household would take a burning log from the bonfire to light the hearth fire at home. This extended the bonfire's supernatural protection to their homes. These fires would be kept alight for three days and three nights following Samhain.

Peasants would be expected to appear before their lords during the festival. Failure to do so was met with punishment by the Otherworld. Usually, these punishments came in the form of sickness and death.

Commanders of soldiers were honored during Samhain. Thrones were built for them as a way to honor their bravery and cunning.

Violence was strictly prohibited during the festival. If you commit a crime, or assault anyone during Samhain, then a swift death sentence would meet you. Which is a convenient rule, considering that some sources record a six-day booze bender around this festival.

Fae Visitors

There are a few creatures associated with Samhain. The Pooka, a type of shape-shifting goblin, collected the offerings set aside for the fairies. Being a mischievous little bastard, should it feel slighted by the lack of an offering, the Pooka could set out on a campaign of trickery against your household.

Another spirit often associated with Samhain is the Lady Gwyn. Dressed in white, this headless woman is accompanied by her faithful black pig. Together they would chase anyone foolish enough to be out on the road alone.

The Dullahan is another headless spirit of Samhain. Fans of Sleepy Hollow will instantly recognize the Dullahan as the Headless Horseman. Carrying his own head under his arm and riding a fiery-eyed horse, the Dullahan calls out the name of its victim. The victim's soul then flees its body in panic, leaving the body quite dead. Presumably the Dullahan then laughs its 'head off'.

From the West came the Sluagh. This was a collection of the unforgiven dead, troublemakers, and criminals who weren't welcome in the afterlife. They invaded homes, carrying off the souls of the dying. Most often they sought out souls similar to their own, but sometimes they would try to kidnap a good soul. The Sluagh announce their presence with screeches and flapping wings.

Closing west-facing windows was usually enough to protect your home from the Sluagh. Although, should they select your soul for harvest, they could only be dissuaded by offering another soul in your place. By doing this, you pretty much lock in your spot in the Sluagh, though.

Christianity Muddies the Water

Paganism was killed off by Christianity. This didn't happen all at once, it was a gradual process of demonizing Pagan practices. Holidays were co-opted and their meanings diverted.

Samhain was changed into All Hallows Eve, a celebration of saints and martyrs. The spirits of Samhain were shifted from mischievous Fae, and lonely ancestors, to demonic monsters.

People grew fearful of their own traditions. They started dressing up as monsters in order to protect themselves on the night of the 31st October. Jack-O-Lanterns also became popular during the Christianization of Samhain.

Originally, Jack-O-Lanterns were carved turnips with a candle inside. They were carried to ward off the attention of evil spirits.

Mumming and Guising became popular in Scotland, before spreading to the rest of the UK. The practice involved dressing up as a monster or evil spirit, and going door to door asking to be allowed to partake of the household's feast.

Should the inhabitants not welcome the cosplayers inside, they would perform pranks. Thus embodying the spirits of old.



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