Samhain: the Gaelic "Festival of the Dead"

This is part of our Diverse Expression of Grief series, written by Hilary Dockray.

Samhain Festival
Samhain Festival

Samhain is an old Gaelic festival with a long and interesting history. In this installment of the Diverse Expressions of Grief series, we will explore its origins, how it is celebrated today, and its contribution to the world’s collection of “festivals of the dead.”

Origins of Samhain

Samhain was originally a Gaelic festival that celebrated the transition from the harvest season to winter. It was typically celebrated from October 31st through November 1st, or between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Anything of Gaelic origin is from or relates to the Gaels, the ethnic and linguistic people that have historically populated the islands that today comprise the United Kingdom. Samhain is believed to have originated from ancient Ireland; in fact, many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain.

In the original celebration of Samhain, the more practical rituals included taking stock of food stores, supplies, and livestock in preparation for winter. It was also a time for the community to come together and feast. This extravagant feast both commemorated the hard work of the harvest season and served as a last indulgence before winter set in.

Most of the rituals of Samhain, however, had a spiritual purpose. The spiritual rituals of Samhain were based on the belief that as the world was transitioning from the light of the harvest season to the dark of winter, the door between the worlds of the living and spirits was open. Visitors to the living world included both spirits of the deceased and fairies.

These visiting spirits and fairies were perceived and treated in a variety of ways. The spirits of deceased loved ones were treated with high regard. Living relatives often took care to put out place settings for deceased loved ones at Samhain feasts as a way to honor them. Often, they would also implore for the spirits of these honored deceased loved ones to bestow some blessing on them in return.

Unfriendly fairies and the spirits of those who may have been holding onto a grudge were treated with fear, however. The living warded off these fairies and unhappy spirits with special lanterns, costumes, and masks. The lanterns used for Samhain, called turnip lanterns, were made from turnips or beets and often had a face carved into them to scare off spirits and fairies. The wearing of costumes and masks was called “guising” because it was also meant to deceive or scare away spirits and fairies. The ritual of “guising” sometimes included a group of children led by an adult going from door to door to ask neighbors for contributions and donations for the communal Samhain feast.

Other spiritual rituals of Samhain included bonfires. The Samhain bonfires are thought to have had different meanings and purposes at different places and at different times. For some, the smoke was thought to have blessing or protective powers. For others, walking between two bonfires was thought to be a purifying ritual. And for others, bonfires may have been for rituals as dire as human sacrifice or as mundane as burning the bones of cattle that were slaughtered in preparation for winter.

Yet another spiritual ritual popular at Samhain was divination. It was used to predict a variety of future events, including who a person’s future spouse would be, where one would live, and how many children one would have. The shape of an apple’s peeling, where nuts roasted on an open fire popped, and in which direction crows flew when chased are just a sampling of the various divination rituals people would perform.

Overall, while it was in part a practical preparation for the changing seasons, the original Samhain was also both an exciting celebration for the community and a time for communing with the spiritual aspects of their lives.

Modern Celebrations of Samhain

Celtic Spirals
Celtic Spirals

While originally only celebrated by Gaels, today people all over the world celebrate Samhain, including the Irish, the Scottish, other people of Gaelic descent, and certain Neopagans.

Neopaganism refers to the variety of contemporary religious movements that are derived from or influenced by historical pagan beliefs from pre-Modern Europe. Samhain is one of the most important observances of Wicca, arguably the most recognizable Neopagan religious movement of the modern world.

Like those who celebrated the original Samhain, Wiccans see Samhain as the time when the barrier between the worlds of the living and the spirits of the deceased is thinnest. Many Wiccans take advantage of this by performing various rituals to honor and communicate with the spirits of their ancestors. These rituals can include creating altars for deceased loved ones, reciting prayers for ancestors, meditation, and holding séances.

In Wicca, séances are ceremonies in which a group of people communicates via a medium with the spirits of deceased loved ones. Different rituals are often used to initiate the communication, including lighting candles, burning incense, and having the group sit in a circle and hold hands to create good energy. The medium initiates conversation with spirits, and then the medium (or anyone else a spirit chooses to communicate through) shares messages from the spirits to the group.

While only select groups of people still celebrate Samhain, many other people around the world celebrate derivations of Samhain or cultural holidays very similar to Samhain. The most notable derivation of Samhain celebrated in the United States is Halloween. The original Samhain rituals of carving turnip lanterns and “guising” have evolved into the modern-day Halloween rituals of carving jack-o-lanterns, dressing up in costumes, and trick-or-treating.

About the Author:

Hilary Dockray came to know The Christi Center through her full-time field internship as a graduate student from The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work. She received her MSSW in December of 2012 and hopes to work in nonprofit administration and management. She is an advocate for the understanding of grief and the support of those who grieve in both her personal and professional lives. Her favorite hobby is writing, so she is delighted to be a guest blogger for The Christi Center.

1 thought on “Samhain: the Gaelic "Festival of the Dead"”

  1. Good grief – after all the wars, blood-spilling and politics to suggest that Ireland is part of the UK “Anything of Gaelic origin is from or relates to the Gaels, the ethnic and linguistic people that have historically populated the islands that today comprise the United Kingdom.” after all this time. Thousands of years of culture trivialised because of Gaelic culture being subjugated for 121 years, and this is the depth of research you come up with ?? Ireland (The Republic of Ireland) is not part of United Kingdom, Britain, nor most in Ireland would argue the British Isles. Haven’t we suffered enough grief with the uninformed spewing out this kind of hurt.
    If you think I’m factually incorrect – ask to look at a British persons passport.
    I came to this site looking for information and I get mis-information. Can’t trust anything else here.

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