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Samhain. What is Samhain and How to Celebrate Witches' New Year. Samhain Traditions and History.

Updated: Oct 11, 2022



witch holding Halloween pumplin
Photo Credit: Paige Cody

Samhain is finally upon us!


One of the MOST favourite holidays of many Pagans and Wiccans, Samhain is the moment when Time stops and the underworld is staring at you.


This day is covered with a veil of secrecy and mysticism. Today we will talk about the history of Samhain and its traditions that remain still in the year 2022.


Samhain Elements, Tools & Correspondences


Samhain Colours: red, orange, brown, black

Elemental Work: Fire

Candles: black, plain beeswax

Flowers & Plants: pumpkins, marigold, sage, oak, chrysanthemum

Food: bread, pumpkins, apples, turnip, meats, milk, cheese and nuts

Drink: apple cider, beer and wine (often represents blood of the Horned God Cernunnos)

Samhain Gods & Goddesses: Cernunnos

Crystals: carnelian, agate

Samhain Animals: deer, fox, bat

Incense & Herbs: cinnamon, mugwort, sage, rosemary

Other Samhain Ritual Attributes: skulls, pentagram (reversed too), horns


For a complete list of correspondences, rituals, recipes and Beltane Tarot spread, check out my Samhain Printable product.




OTHER NAMES OF SAMHAIN


As always, let's start by reviewing all the possible names you can come across that all will be related to Samhain:

  • Samhainn, Samhuinn, Samain, Samuin (older forms)

  • Sauin (Scottish Gaelic)

  • Halloween

  • Hop-to-Naa (Oie Houney, Oíche Shamhna)

  • Dziady (Forefathers' Eve, Slavic)

  • Nos Galan Gaeaf (Welsh)

  • Witches' New Year

As you can see, there are A LOT of names for Samhain (and by the way, Samhain is the Irish version but it is the most commonly used term to refer to this holiday as the part of Wiccan Wheel of the Year).


But this just highlights the significance of this date and its powerful energy that was recognized worldwide, even if celebrated differently. It does not mean that this is the same holiday that is differently named. It means that the energy of this time was recognized in different countries, in different eras through their own ways and celebrations.



How to Pronounce Samhain?


Samhain's pronunciation varies but the most correct version is thought to be the Irish one. As such, Samhain is pronounced as Sau-wn or Sau-ihn. Although I hear many people pronouncing it as Sam-ain.


How Did the Word "Samhain" Originate?


It is possible that the etymology of the word Samhain lies in Sanskrit - Indo-European language. The word "samana" means "gathering" or "coming together. At the same time, in the Gaelic language, the word Samhain means the third month of Autumn, November.



fire dance
Photo Credit: Mohammad Nahasi

The History & Origin of Samhain


Despite it being quite clear that Samhain was celebrated widely for many centuries, it is common to believe that it originates with ancient Celts. They occupied British Island but their colonies stretched through many territories of Europe including France, Italy, Germany and Austria. That said, historians mostly agree that the birthplace of the Samhain holiday belongs to the territories of modern Scotland and Ireland.


When is Samhain Celebrated?


Unlike some other holidays of the Wheel of the Year, Samhain has a fixed date and is celebrated on Eve of October 31st into the night of November 1st. But was this always a fixed date, even during the old times of our ancestors?


No, of course, it wasn't.


Hundreds and thousands of years ago, at the times of Old Celts there was no October or November.


Like many other holidays, Samhain was celebrated according to the Lunar Calendar and as you may know, it is changeable. Historians think that the celebration of Samhain fell at the beginning of the third Autumn Moon.


As for many modern Witches, for our ancestors, Samhain was something similar to a New Year. It was the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one. There are multiple variations to how long the holiday was celebrated, from 3 days to 8 days (seven nights). But it is important to note that Samhain is a day that does not belong to any cycle. It is a pause, a transition, a moment of darkness when the world becomes still.


As I discuss in all of my Blog posts dedicated to the Wheel of the Year, these Pagan holidays were, first and foremost, connected to what was the most important to our ancestors: Mother Earth, crops and harvest.




Samhain was not an exception. It is the holiday when all agricultural work was wrapped up at last and it was the time to prepare for a new and long season ahead.


It was also the time when people put their trust in Gods more that even in themselves. Therefore, an integral part of Samhain was to thank the Gods, as well as to ask them for a blessing for a year ahead.


This was the time when animal pasture would come to an end and meat preparation would be taking place. Therefore, the animal slaughter was seen as both sacrifice to the Gods and an opportunity for a great feast.



Image Credit: Adam Flockemann. Unsplash

The Mythology of Samhain


As the thinning of the veil between the worlds was recognized, Samhain became surrounded by many myths and legends.


Celts thought that on Samhain come Aos Sí, supernatural creatures similar to fairies, beautiful and very powerful. So, it was customary to celebrate their appearance on this night.


Another myth is associated with the coming of the icy Divine Being Cailleach or Winter Queen, who was to replace Brigid and Áine, the fertility and Summer Goddess. It was also the time of Cernunnos who was seen as the bringer of long winter and the energy of death associated with the season.


Photo Credit: R. Spielmann. Unsplash

Christian Influence on Samhain


Of course, we cannot talk about Samhain's history without taking a moment to discuss the Christian influence on the holiday. Unfortunately, much like all other Pagan holidays and traditions, Samhain was not positively impacted by the Christian wave.


Christianity saw all Pagan holidays as the work of the Devil and did everything possible to eradicate the culture and traditions. And so the holiday of abundance, fertility and transition between the cycles of nature and between the Worlds turned into a demonic rite.


This is followed by an idea of Samhain being not a "New Year" but a dark dark time when demons and creatures of the underworld come to our world on a hunt.


And so All Hollow's Eve (All Hallow e'en) was moved to October 31 and All Saints Day to November 1st to push out the celebration of Samhain.


Of course, even by reading this rather short Blog post on the great history of this holiday, you may say that there is absolutely no association between the Christian and Pagan versions. But you need to understand that many people were illiterate at the time. Moreover, simple folks were busy with their jobs and survival. And so, the Christian story about demons, ghosts and hell became widely accepted.



And lastly...


What is the difference between Samhain and Halloween?


Samhain and Halloween are the same, technically. But from the historical perspective, Samhain precedes All Saints Day. As happened with many Pagan holidays during the period of Christianization, a Christian holiday would superimpose a pagan one. This resulted in the mixing of traditions and rites.


Samhain has lost its sacral meaning, in my opinion. The only traditions that have reached modern days are fire and costumes (although the meaning of dressing up on Halloween has nothing to do with the origins, when people would change their appearance to confuse and ward off spirits, not to look like a "sexy nurse"). Jack o'lantern, giving out sweets and Halloween decorations are traditions that are quite modern.


All that said, I do believe that the rise of Neopaganism will aid in the rebirth of Samhain and by studying its roots and traditions, we will be able to revive this holiday as it should be.




Samhain Traditions


Ok, wow! Now that we know what Samhain was REALLY all about, let's talk about the traditions associated with this great holiday!


Time for a Feast!


Many Wheel of the Year holidays start with this and Samhain is no exception. It is customary to cook a nice dinner and get together with your friends and family.


Don't feel like participating? Tough luck! It is believed that a person that refuses to join the celebration will simply not pass to the next cycle.


If you are wondering what the traditional foods of Samhain are, trust me the key is to keep it simple. Our ancestors did not make creamy parmesan risotto. But you will never go wrong with baking a loaf of fresh bread, apple or pumpkin pie. If you'd like to get creative, Celts used to make bread shaped like the horns of Cernunnos God.


An important part of this tradition was to set aside some goods for the Gods.


Fan fact: On Samhain, it was forbidden to leave your town or village. It is believed that should you get lost, you will be dragged into the Underworld by spirits.



Samhain Decorations!


A protective function on Samhain was given to the skulls. But back in the day, they were often carved from turnips rather than pumpkins. They were then placed on a porch or fence.


Later people started using pumpkins, carving out eyes and mouths. Sometimes we also see a candle inside.


Fire Up!


Samhain's Elemental work is associated with Fire.


Fire was the symbol of purification in many cultures and there are many rituals associated with it. On Samhain, Fire was used with the intention to burn down the old and get ready for a new cycle, after a period of darkness.


Moreover, there were a few Celtic holidays that would not involve fire in the celebration.



Do Some Divination Work!


Of course, you may read Tarot cards or cast your Runes but if you'd like to go traditional here are some interesting ways to take a peak into the future:


--------- READING SHAPES -----------


Burn vegetable skins. Wait what? yes!


Reading shapes was always one of the most popular types of divination work and, in fact, this is the first divination work I saw when I was a child. My mother was reading shapes of beeswax on Beltane.


But alternatively, you can burn the skins of vegetables such as turnip and read their shapes.


Crack the egg!


Crack the egg into a clear cup of water and read the shape it creates.




Honour the Ancestors


I probably should have started with this one because for Samhain...this is BIG.


This holiday offers you a chance to connect with your loved ones that have passed, to tell them everything you didn't have a chance to say when they were in their bodies here on Earth.


You can simply honour them too and let them know they are never to be forgotten.


A simple candle ritual and meditation where you open up your heart and call upon the ancestors may lead you into the worlds where your ancestors dwell. You may also ask for their blessing and aid in anything that you need. Trust me, they are very powerful!


Let Go


As the Samhain is seen as the Witches' New Year, you, my fellow witchy friends, officially don't have to wait till December to work on your pre New Year cleaning. Isn't it great news?


Seriously though, Samhain is a great opportunity to get rid of the old and open up the space to receive the new. Declutter, clean your home, end a toxic relationship, whateeeever you choose to get rid of will be gone for good. Moreover, when you are working in tune with a specific energy flow, things are being accomplished much easier. If you had a hard time ending your relationship because of the fear of not being able to get over your ex, Samhain will aid you in this process energetically. Use the time until Imbolc to heal and work on yourself.


Lastly, Samhain is the period you should dedicate to going inwards and spend some time on reflection and personal development. It gives an opportunity for depth and a chance to seek the answers within.




Modern Samhain/Halloween Traditions


Like I said above, Samhain has changed. The Holiday that had such a deep and important meaning, slowly transitioned to be, at most, a chance to remember the dead. Spirits and fairies turned into ghosts and demons and frankly, even the ancestors that were honoured turned into ghosts of the dead that are to be feared.


Jack O'Lantern


Jack O'Lantern is the most known symbol of "modern" Samhain. It is a contemporary version of a carved skull that replaced turnip and other vegetables used. They first appeared in 1837 in America. According to the legend, they are used to guide the spirits to the Underworld.


But they modern significance once again shifted and they are now seen more as a protective element of Halloween. People place them outside of their homes to repel the evil.



Trick or Treat


Trick or treating comes from a tradition when the poor would go around the houses to ask for special baked goods prepared for All Saints Day. These would be given in exchange for a promise to pray for the passed family members.


So, what's the trick? The trick is that if you refuse to give sweets, your home may be a victim of a little mischief, such as broken fence or damaged porch.


But of course, this is not something we would expect today and the "trick or treat" is just a fun way for the kids to ask for sweets and goodies.



I trust that you will be able to take out a lot of useful information from my blog post and rethink how you see this holiday. My hope is that more people will see less Halloween and more Samhain on this day.


Have a Blessed Samhain, Friends!






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