The festival of Samhain is one of the great turning points of the Celtic year, the moment when one year ends and the next begins slowly in the dark. At Samhain we say farewell to the season of harvest and autumn and prepare to move into winter. It is a time of deep connection with the land and the ancestors, and this association with the dead became Christianised as All Saints and All Souls.
The ancient festival of Samhain began with Oíche Shamhna and was celebrated on October 31st or Samhain Eve. Samhain is a time when the veil between this world and the otherworld was at its thinnest. It was a night when people believed the supernatural forces were strong and provided a window in time when the portal to the otherworld is open.
This was the perfect night to meet the Púca or mischievous fairies, and stories of abduction to the other side were rife. One story tells of the Púca kidnapping a piper to play for the Bean Sí on top of Croagh Patrick! This led to the tradition of dressing up on Halloween night. People rubbed their faces with soot, wore masks and head coverings woven from straw or rushes, disguised their voices and changed their names. By being disguised as an evil spirit, the fairies considered you one of their own and passed you by.
The living might see ancestors returning home at Halloween. Often the household would leave food and a seat out for the returning dead or add extra turf to the fire before they went to bed to welcome back the souls of the departed.
Divination was a feature of the celebrations at Samhain. The woman of the house made a Bairín Breac (Barmbrack). She baked small objects into the bread to foretell events for the coming year. If you got the slice with the ring in it, you would be married within a year; a coin predicted wealth; a thimble suggested a life of spinsterhood (with a button foretelling bachelorhood) and a piece of rag or fabric meant poverty.
Bountiful Irish apples were strongly linked with the festival. Try this one at home: peel an apple and throw the long peel over your shoulder. Examine it closely where it lands – it will resemble the initial of the person you will marry! Young people also put items such as a piece of iron or an apple under their pillow, believing their future husband or wife might appear in a dream that night.
Apples were used in games on this night such as apple-bobbing and snap-apple. Other games including ducking for coins in a basin of water.
Our ancestors looked on the night as the end of the year’s growth and on this night the Bean Sí (Banshee), fairies and evil spirits and the Púca would cross over from the otherworld and spit on the blackberries and other fruits. Children were told not to eat them from that time.
The farmers would have all their crops in by Samhain. Cattle and sheep were brought down from the mountains to fields near the farmhouse. Debts were settled and workmen given their wages.
Bonfires were lit, just like on Bealtaine Eve or St. John’s Eve, and were thought to protect people from evil forces.
Our ancestors lived in close communion with the natural world and honoured the cycle of life during these festival days. As Samhain marks the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the dark, Mother Nature invites us to align our focus with hers. During this season we recognise that Samhain is a time for release and letting go of what no longer serves us. Just as the tree lets go of her leaves, we too can reflect on what we can let go from our lives.
It is also a time to prepare for rebirth and letting in the new. The dark months ahead allow for stillness and reflection, time to dream of new beginnings, just like the stirring of the seed beneath the ground.
Samhain by Zoom – Saturday 30th October 2021, 7-9pm
Interested in hearing more? Join us for a special evening from Brigit’s Garden where will share stories and songs associated with Samhain, relax with a meditation, honour those that have passed and light the Samhain fire. We intend the gathering to be as interactive as possible with a chance to meet others in breakout rooms. After the main session we will keep the Zoom room open with a warm invitation to anyone who would like to stay for an informal ‘gathering round the fire’ to share songs and poems.