While the supermarket shelves are stocked with plastic scythes and witches hats, this time of year meant something much different to our ancestors.
By Rebecca Brown
For one night every year, witches and spooks of all kinds are allowed to wander the streets. This night is 31st October – Halloween. It’s a night many of us have fond memories of guising, ducking for apples and carving pumpkins (or more traditionally, turnips). What many people don’t know is that this spooky night goes way back to the times of our ancestors, and what for us is a night of ghouls and sweets, for them was the beginning of a new year.
Samhain (pronounced SOW-in in Irish Gaelic and SAHV-in in Scots Gaelic) marked the beginning of the winter season. Our ancestors’ lives were intrinsically tied to the physical landscape and harvest cycles around them, and therefore the onset of winter brought with it great significance. It is a time when the physical world withers and sleeps, and so too, do its people. With the harvest brought in and the nights becoming longer than the days, the people retreat to their homes for a long, dark winter of hibernation – like the seed waiting to sprout in the spring. Samhain was important as it marked the end of a successful harvest season.
But it was also a time for quiet reflection and honouring the ancestors. Winter, to the celts, was associated with death on account of the trees dropping their leaves, the sun waning and the world growing cold. It is a time when the earth is barren, and for this reason, Samhain has strong ties to death and the spirit world. It is believed that on the night of Samhain, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead are at its thinnest and the spirits walk among the living.
In order to ward off malevolent spirits, people would carve turnips with frightening faces and put them outside, or disguise themselves as ghouls so that they might be left alone. A dumb supper might be held on this night too, in which an empty setting was laid at the table to represent deceased ancestors who might join them in their meal.
Death, to our modern world, is something to be feared, not celebrated, which is perhaps partly why the true meaning of Samhain has been lost among the commercialisation of Halloween. But for our ancient ancestors, death was only a new beginning. When the winter sets in and the earth seems to all but die, it is inevitably reborn again in the spring. Thus, Samhain is also believed to have been the Celtic New Year, beginning a brand new cycle of life, a time for lighting candles and fires through the winter, reflecting on the year gone by and looking forward to the life and light at the other side.