Samhain – The Other Harvest Holiday

I finally realize why I have always loved Halloween so much! It’s not just because of the costumes and the candy. I always knew there was a bigger resaon. It’s not because of the scary movies (which I actually loathe) and the evil spirits. I always knew there was a bigger reason. It’s not just because it is the culmination day of Autumn which is my favorite season of the year. I always knew there was a bigger reason.

The reason is because it is yet another example how traditions from all cultures can be traced back to the similar roots. The reason is because it is yet another example of how important it is to honor the relationship between the earth, the heavens, and our souls both in this lifetime and others. The reason is because in learning about the history of Halloween I am once again reminded that we are All One.

While I was preparing for the story show on Monday night this past week, I was looking to tie together two common threads that I had an interest in talking about. The two threads that I wanted to tie into one story were our recent trip to Ireland and the upcoming celebration of Halloween. Little did I know that in doing my research to tell an Irish-based ghost story that I would learn so much about the history of Halloween and another holiday that I had just learned a great deal about in my studies of Celtic Shamanism. Now keep in mind that I am a storyteller, not a historian, so I’m not telling this tale from a facts and figures standpoint as much as I am from an entertaining information standpoint. Anyone who feels compelled to correct me on a date or a detail will be immediately sent to the gallows! Here we go.

As many of you already know, Halloween began as an offshoot of a Christian holiday called All Saint’s Day. All Saint’s Day was introduced by the Catholic church in the year 609 AD but was originally celebrated on the date of May 13th. In the year 835 AD the day of the celebration was moved to November 1st by Pope Gregory IV and there it has remained for the last 1180 years. Since All Saint’s Day is the celebration of all the hallowed individuals in the Catholic church, the mass that is celebrated on November 1st is referred to as Allhallowmas. Thus the night before this celebration day would be referred to as Allhallowseve. And here we finally arrive at the link to the name Halloween. 

There are a number of varying theories as to why Pope Gregory IV moved the date of All Saint’s Day. It might have been related to the fact that pilgrimages to Rome were more practical in the fall than they were in the sultry summer when Roman fever was a constant health risk. It might have been because it was more fitting to celebrate the spirits of the dead as most plants were dying and not as they were blooming. I’d put my money on this last theory though: Most say that the date of the holiday was moved to distract attention from an ancient Celtic holiday of pagan origin that has been celebrated LONG before there was a Halloween or even a Catholic church. The name of that celebration is Samhain – in Gaelic it is pronounced Sah-win. 

Samhain is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals with the others being Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh. Each of these festivals occur at the quarter marks of the Celtic year. Samhain is traditionally celebrated at the approximate halfway point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, from sunset on October 31st until sunset on November 1st. Samhain represents the end of the harvest season. Cattle and sheep are brought down from the higher mountain pastures to the safe winter fields. Celebratory feasts with great food and mead were held around giant bonfires that burned through the night.

unnamed-3From a spiritual standpoint, it is said that the day of Samhain is the day of the year when the veils between our human world and the spirit world are at their thinnest. The opportunity for connection between the two sides of the veil has been recognized and celebrated going back quite far in time. The story of the Samhain festival has been written about in Irish mythology for thousands of years. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that the festival of Samhain dates back to the ancients can be found at the Hill of Tara. I have written on many occasions of our love for the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland. The last time I wrote about Tara was on our recent trip when I said this:

“When we visited Tara on the fourth day of our journey last year we knew nothing about its history and we had no idea that it would become such a large part of our lives going forward. The moment we stepped on the Hill we were entranced by its energy and its power. I have often described my feelings of being on the Hill as, ‘Being stuck in quicksand and having no fear of the outcome.’

The Hill is home to cairns that served as passage tombs for the dead to transition into there future lives. The Hill also served as home to the High King of Ireland from 1000 BC until the rule of the final High King of Ireland, a one Brian Boru, around 1000 AD. The Hill is sparkling with the energy of fairies and pixies and the famous Hawthorne trees that dot the Hill are quite literally portals to another dimension.”

The most famous of the passage tombs at the Hill of Tara is The Mound of the Hostages, which happens to be perfectly aligned with the morning sunrise on Samhain, just like the more famous Newgrange passage tomb is aligned with the Summer Solstice sunrise. A coincidence? I think not!

Long before there was a Halloween, ancient Celtic civilizations commemorated Samhain with traditions. One such tradition was to carve scary looking faces into turnips and leave them at their doorways to ward off dark spirits at the time when the veil was so thin. Another tradition was to leave out special baked breads or other sweets as an offering for departed loved ones if they should come looking for a treat. Yet another tradition still was to wear masks or other costumes to confuse evil souls from the other side of the veil who might come looking for you.

So do any of these ancient Samhain traditions sound familiar to you my friends? Could it just be that Halloween traditions are no more than extensions of traditions that go so far back in time that they transcend any link to a specific faith? I’d like to think yes!

Some might view any celebration related to the dead as a celebration rooted in fear and darkness. I have heard more than a few people put an emphasis on the word pagan when describing the holidays of Halloween or Samhain. Too often, some individuals feel the need to attach negative vibration in the word pagan. I feel no such vibration. I prefer to recognize that any celebration of departed souls is an opportunity to see the joy and the light. In showing respect for those souls who have traveled the path before us, we open up an opportunity to feel a special connection to our past and our future regardless of our personal choice of faith.

So I say bring on the thin veils. Call the day whatever you like. Pray to one God or pray to many. Wear a mask for fun or wear a mask for protection. Carve a turnip or a jack-o-lantern, whichever you like. In the end, as always, the circle of life is a circle within this lifetime and within all lifetimes. In the end, we are All One.



About Jim Herbert

I've been wanting to write my whole life. By age 45 it had amounted to nothing more than a storage locker of half full journals and a lot of unfulfilled dreams. Then Paris in the fall of 2011 happened. It was the catalyst I needed to consistently blog. At first I had a hard time hitting the publish button, but now two blog sites and over 300 posts later I'm hitting my stride. I'm also a budding speech writer. I've recently been heavily involved in the Chicago Storytelling scene and have also won the Chicago Toastmasters Area 66 International Speech Contest. Check out our website at for more details about the amazing things that are happening in my life. A book or two are nearing completion. With another Paris trip on tap for Easter of 2015 I can only imagine that there are Infinite Possibilities on the horizon!!!
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