A non-Pagan friend of ours recently asked us a few questions about Samhain. We realized that we’re pretty much asked the same thing every year at this time.
So here are the Top 13 (yes, 13 because it’s witchy) most frequently asked questions about Samhain.
What is Samhain? This is a simple question to answer and, the simple answer is fraught with peril.
The simple answer is that Samhain is one of the eight Pagan festivals, celebrated in late October or early November. It’s a time when the veil between this world and the next is thin. It’s when witches and Pagans honour their beloved dead and the ancestors.
Depending on who you ask, everything we just wrote is completely true or completely false or mostly true or mostly false. The truth lies, as is often the case, somewhere in the middle.
It is quite true that Samhain is one of the best known holidays in Modern Paganism. It’s also true that many Pagan and Witch traditions celebrate Samhain as one of the eight “traditional” Sabbats. It’s not uncommon to find Ancestor veneration present in Samhain rituals and some Craft traditions, like our Reclaiming tradition, clearly puts an emphasis on remembering our Beloved Dead.
How old is Samhain? Very ancient and very modern. The Roman forces that conquered Gaul and much of the British Isles mention the “Celtic” festival of Samhain. So that puts Samhain on the map about two thousand years ago. Presumably, the native Britons the Romans bumped into on their way to making straight roads and aqueducts didn’t start celebrating Samhain just to spite the Romans, so it’s safe to say that Samhain is more than two thousand years old. But that’s about as accurate as we can be.
Now, there’s no record of exactly what the ancient Britons (or Irish, Welsh or Scots) actually did at Samhain. So while we know that they celebrated something, we don’t really know what or how.
What we think of as Samhain today, a celebration of the dead when the veil is thinnest is, perhaps, about one hundred fifty years old at the most and probably not much less than seventy years old.
Are Halloween and Samhain the same? Mostly, we can say “NO!” here. We say mostly because witches and many Pagans would attest to Samhain being a high-holiday, a sacred time, a time of veneration, regardless of its historical origins. Wal-mart would tell you that Halloween is the start of the Christmas season and a great excuse to prop up the corn syrup industry.
Who are the Beloved Dead? Generally speaking, when Witches refer to the Beloved Dead, they most often mean friends, teachers, family members, loved ones that were actually known in this lifetime that have died. So you know, Aunt Millie or Mr. Hughes your science teacher that inspired you to become an astronaut.
Who are the Mighty Dead Anyway? This definition will vary from tradition to tradition, but it’s often held that the Mighty Dead are those witches, Pagans, magic makers and world changers on whose shoulders we stand on today. Names like Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, Victor and Cora Anderson, Judy Foster are frequently called. Some traditions keep long lists of those that have passed from this world to the next and, perhaps, are working on the other side for our benefit too.
What’s with the bones and pictures of dead people? Making altars to remember our loved ones, revered ones and memorializing their deeds has been part of the human grief process for as long as we have been able to call ourselves human. And, while it’s not always the most pleasant thought, the fact is that we will all die sooner or later. Skulls, bones, pictures of those gone beyond are effective reminders of our mortality.
What do you do in your rituals? There are as many ritual practices as their are people to practice them, it seems. Some things you might expect at this time of year? Ancestor dinners, eating foods that are special to your particular family or culture. Telling the stories of grandparents or family of choice. Remembering what they went through in their lives. Rituals may include a symbolic journey to the Otherworlds (there are a few of them,depending on your tradition) and visiting with deities that preside over death and birth. Still others may focus on visiting the Roadhouse of the Dead and speaking with those that have slipped off their mortal bonds.
Samhain is like Day of The Dead, Right? NO! Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, belongs to a specific culture with it’s own customs and practices. It’s true that Day of The Dead celebrations often focus on the dearly departed. But Samhain and Day Of The Dead are not the same.
What do they Celebrate in Australia? Well, you should probably ask an Australian. We did actually. Some folks we know celebrate the secular holiday of Halloween with all of the costumes and candies and whatnot. Why spoil a good party right? On a spiritual level, Beltane sits opposite on the calendar to Samhain and so folk might dance around a May Pole and enjoy the Rite of Spring.
Do you dress up in costumes? Of Course! Why not. Actually, some private witch groups will work skyclad. Some will hold public rituals and folks may dress in robes or other ritual “garb”. Other folks wear jeans and tee-shirts.
Can I celebrate Samhain without a coven or group? For sure! Building altars, remembering your ancestors, grieving and/or celebrating your Beloved or Mighty Dead can be a wonderful ritual with just one participant – you!
Why is it called “The Witches New Year”? There’s no real historical evidence anywhere that Samhain was ever celebrated as a New Year festival in the “Celtic” world or throughout the British Isles. There’s no real magical, archival evidence for Samhain being the start of the New Year. We do look at Samhain as a time to slow down, to take stock of the year, to prepare for less daylight and longer nights. If that says “New Year” to you, then HAPPY NEW YEAR!