Whatever you think of it, Halloween is firmly a part of British culture and has been for a very long time.

It is deeply rooted in the British Isles originating from ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain (pronounced Sow[rhymes with cow]-Inn). Samhain is actually the Irish Gaelic word for November.

Samhain to Halloween

Samhain traditionally is celebrated from 31st October to 2nd November as a three-day festival. The dates fall about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. There is evidence that it has been celebrated on this date since Neolithic times as ancient Irish tombs have been found that align with the sunrise times at Samhain. It is also mentioned in many pieces of Irish mythology.

According to tradition, the time of Samhain is the period when the ‘Veil of Time’ is lifted, and we may commune with people who have passed into other worlds.

In ancient times, it was not possible to keep whole herds of animals through the winter, so the minimum breeding stock was kept alive and the rest were slaughtered and salted to be preserved. Samhain was the time when the killing and preserving was done. Crops too had to be gathered in by 31st October and it is therefore not difficult to see why Samhain was considered a time of change, of transition from one place to another and from Summer to Winter.

This period of transition was one in which normal reality was disturbed. Chaos reigned and this was marked in several ways, which have now become ‘watered-down’ and appear in the form of ‘trick or treating’ on Halloween night. In Scotland, the weakened boundary between the living and the dead was represented by people impersonating spirits with masked faces. The disorder was intensified with mischievous pranks such as horses being led away and left in other people’s fields.

The lighting of bonfires at Samhain was an important feature of the celebration. Ireland’s bonfire and firework night are still on 31st October, although in England it has moved back a few days to 5th November.

In the Christian tradition, this time was renamed All-Hallows Day on 31st, All Saints Day on 1st November, and All Souls Day on 2nd November. 

All Saints Day was also known as Hallowmas ‘the Feast of the Holy Ones’ on which the blessed Saints were remembered. The night before (31st October) became All Hallows Eve, or Halloween as it is called today.

Halloween in 2020

This year is a strange one in many ways. It really feels like a period of chaos that the original Samhain marked. It seems unlikely the normal ‘trick or treating’ and Halloween parties can take place. So instead, why not try incorporating some of the older traditions to mark the occasion.

You could:

  • Honour your Ancestors. Samhain was a time that the ancients honoured those that had come before them as they felt the veil between different worlds was thin. Spend some time thinking about and talking about people in your family who may have died. People in the past even would include a plate for them at the family table on Samhain.
  • Light a Candle. This time of year marks the period into the dark half of the year in the northern hemisphere. Candles bring light and a special warmth into your home.
  • Special Samhain Meal. Samhain was the big harvest festival of the year before winter set in. Mark this by cooking a special meal, you could include some seasonal produce like pumpkins.
  • Spend time in the Autumn Air. The weather is getting cooler, but the Autumnal season is spectacular. Even though we cannot meet lots of people, we can still spend time outdoors. Notice the changing leaves and colours of the season.
  • Reflect on how much you have changed this year. Samhain was a time of change and one to consider how life changes.