Spirituality Page: Essays and Articles

Samhain (October 31-November 2)

© Gordon Ireland. Used with permission.

Author's Biography: Gordon Ireland is active in the Michigan Pagan community and runs several Pagan websites. For more information please visit his website http://www.earthspirits.theshoppe.com

Samhain (pronounced Sowain, Sah-uin, or Sahm-hayn) is also called the Celtic New Year, The Third harvest, All Hollows Eve, the Day of the Dead, and of course Halloween. There are many more names for Samhain, but rather then having a different meaning, they are actual different variations of the same name. For example: All Hollows Eve is also equal to All Saints Eve; the Day of the Dead is also the Feast of Spirits; and Samhain is also called Samhuinn. McCoy claims that there are many possibilities for the name Samhain, one being that it is named for the Aryan God of the Dead, Sama. The second, is that is Gaelic for summers end, Samhraidhreach. The third one, and the more likely, is that it is Irish Gaelic for November (McCoy page 23).

Samhain along with Beltane is one of the original fire festivals. Beltane is the Sabbat to celebrate the beginning of life (planting), Samhain to celebrate death (harvest). This continuing circle is very much part of the Celtic way of viewing things. In Wiccan tradition this Sabbat is to celebrate the death of the Oak King, and is followed with six weeks of mourning by the Goddess.

Samhain has been, at least for the modern neo-pagan, the Celtic New Year. However there are at least two writers that dispute this, Pliny the Elder, and the Athenian. Both of these writers claim that the Celts began their New Year in July-Midsummer to Midsummer, the highest point of the Sun (King, page 106). Modern Neo-pagan writers should note. If one really thinks about it, it would make sense to start and end the year on the longest day.

The Third Harvest was a time to collect the last sheaves of wheat from the fields, pick the last apple from the tree. In Celtic cultures it was the custom to have all the crops in by October 30. After that all the crops in the field, fruit on the tress, became property of the fairies. It was considered to be taboo to do so after, bring the wrath of the fairies upon you, and the possibility of a lifetime of bad luck. One of Samhain's many traditions is to leave a bit of food by your door to feed the little folk, and in some parts of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland this tradition is still observed (McCoy, page 38-39).

All Hollows Eve (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1) and the Day of the Dead (November 2) was the Catholic Church's answer to Samhain. As with many of the other pagan holidays, the Church, when confronted with a pagan ritual it could not abolish, adopted it. Approximately in the 9th century the Abbot of Cluny- in France established Michaelmas. A day to celebrate the Saint Michael. This day was later changed to Hollowmas in the 10th century, soon to be followed by All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead. The Hollowmas was a day to celebrate the dead; All Saints Day called for sinners and saints to be restored to heaven; with the Day of the Dead, the dead redeemed or otherwise, was celebrated. This change of the names but not the holiday allowed the pagans to accept the holidays as Christian ones. The pagans already believed this to be a time when the dead and the living were allowed to both dwells in the same place. When the veil separating the two dimensions was at it's weakest. On All Souls Day many would make cakes to feed the dead (some traditions never die, pardon the pun), as demonstrated by the following song, the predecessor to trick or treat.

Soul! Soul! For a soul cake!
I pray you, good missis, a soul cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Or any good thing to make us merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Them who made us all.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan.
Give us good alms, and we'll be gone.

Halloween, the Witches New Year, the personal favorite of many modern pagans, including this author, first was and always will be a Christian creation, as was mentioned in the previous paragraph. Halloween, or those who celebrate, have taken it back from the Christians and have returned it to it's rightful place, that being one of the most celebrated pagan holidays. McCoy states that Halloween use of masks is a practice that begin in the Burning Times, claiming that Witches used masks not to be identified when traveling at night. I dispute this, 1). Without going into a treatise on the Burning Times, witches rarely worked in covens, thus having no reason to disguise themselves from others. 2). The use of masks is very old. Given the fact that many pagan cultures believed this to be a day when the dead were able to cross over, many wore masks to disguise themselves and frighten away evil spirits. One of the other carryovers from both the Christian and pagan influences, the use of the carved pumpkin, they liked masks were design to confuse and frighten away evil spirits.

However you choose to celebrate Samhain, or whatever name you wish to call it, it is a fun day. A day to become something other then what you are, to become closer with the spirits, and to celebrate the passing of your ancestors.


As was discussed Samhain is a when the Spirit world is at it's closest to our world. One of the many ways to honor this fact is 1) to leave and offering by your back door. 2) Leave and empty place setting for a departed loved one and your dinner table. As was stated earlier, Samhain is one the favored of all the Sabbats by pagans, and non-pagans alike, and as such should be celebrated with others. The following ritual is designed with that in mind, with very liberal borrowings from Starhawk and McCoy.

The following items will be needed:

1. One white candle
2. One black candle
3. Chalice (wine if appropriate)
4. Cakes (enough for all participants)
5. A list of those whom you wish to honor. Each person involved would have their own list, to be shared at the proper time.
6. Four pumpkins to be used to make the four corners.

First purify and cast your circle according each particular tradition. Then invoke the God and Goddess. Begin ceremony.

LEADER: (Enters the circle from the East, lighting the black candle.) Merry Meet and Welcome. The Circle is open, yet unbroken. This is a time that is not a time, in a place that is not a place, on a day that is not a day. We stand at the gate between the living and the dead on this night when the veil between the two worlds is the thinnest. We are here to witness the death of the Holly King, the waning Sun God, the lover and husband of the Crone Goddess. We, the (insert name here), welcome the Holly Lord ALL: We welcome him. Lead us, Lord.

HOLLY KING: Follow me, I am here. (Group follows him in)
LEADER: Be our Guide
HOLLY KING: I am the Guide, the Way is open.
ALL: Be our Guide.
HOLLY KING: I am the Guide, the Way is clear.
ALL: Be our Guide.
HOLLY KING: I am the Guide, Death is no barrier.
ALL: Be our Guide.
(Pass cakes and wine.)
HOLLY KING: Follow me, for time is near. (Passes Chalice with wine. At this time, each person, or those who want to, can read their own passage of remembrance.)
HOLLY KING: What is remembered, lives.
ALL: What is remembered, lives.
HOLLY KING: What is forgotten, dies.
ALL: What is forgotten, dies.
HOLLY KING: What is remembered, lives.
ALL: We remember.
HOLLY KING: Death is a truth as is life, and just as life cannot last forever, neither can death. You shall see me again, reborn, gaining in strength and vibrancy. When it seems that the darkest has come, as the Yuletide fades, under the stars, when it is my time again, you shall see me born. Through me, all passes out of life. (Holly King extinguishes black candle)
CRONE: (Enters, lights white candle) But through me, all may be born again. The Holly King has shown me the way. Now, on this night of Samhain, at this place and time between the veils.
ALL: Everything passes, changes.
CRONE: Seed becomes fruit.
ALL: Fruit becomes seed.
CRONE: In birth, we die.
ALL: On death, we feed.
CRONE: For my womb is the cauldron of rebirth. (Passes cakes)
ALL: In us, the circle is ever turning. (Turn to our neighbors and say, "Blessed be.")
CRONE: Take me as yours, for winter is my time. We thank you, blessed spirits and ancestors, for joining us. You shall not be forgotten any time soon. (Extinguishes candle)
ALL: So do we accept you. So Mote it Be!
LEADER: The circle is open. Ceremony is over. All leave to the west.


Cakes For The Dead

Makes about 3 dozen, dough must be chilled several hours to overnight.

  • 1/2 c veg. oil
  • 4 sq unsweetened chocolate (4 oz) melted
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 2 cups pastry flour (not hard, sifted or cake flour)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup confectioner's sugar

Mix oil, chocolate, and granulated sugar. Blend in one egg at a time until well mixed. Add vanilla. Measure flour by dipping method or by sifting. Stir flour, baking powder, and salt into oil mixture. Chill several hours to overnight.

Heat oven to 350 degree F [175 degree C]. Roll about a tablespoon of dough into a ball (yes, it's messy). Drop balls into confectioner's sugar & roll around until coated. Place about 2 inches apart on greased baking sheet. Bake 10-12 min. They will be a little soft but should not be mushy. Edges should be firm.

Hot Apple Cider

  • 1 1/2 gallons Apple Cider
  • 2 whole cinnamon sticks
  • 5 cloves
  • 1 large orange, sliced thin with peel left on
  • 1/2 lemon, sliced thin with peel left on
  • 1/2 cup sugar

Directions: In large pot, combine cider, cinnamon sticks, cloves, orange and lemon slices, and sugar to taste. Serve hot.

American Traditional Pumpkin Pie

  • 3 eggs 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 cups pumpkin mush*
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1- 12oz can evaporated milk
  • 1 pie shell

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large non-metal bowl combine sugars and eggs. Add in the pumpkin mush, the spices, salt, and evaporated milk. Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 10 minutes, and then reduce heat to 350 and bake for another 50 minutes, or until pie sets. Make 6-8 servings.

*Pumpkin mush: cut a medium pumpkin in half. Prick the skin several times with a fork, and place on a cookie sheet, cut-side up. Bake for 50 minutes or until very soft when poked with a fork. Let the pumpkin cool, then scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Scoop out the pumpkin meat, and throw away the skin. Mash the pumpkin meat with a potato masher or puree in a blender/food processor. Makes about 4 cups.


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