Samhain is one of the two great Celtic holidays, the Celts divided the year into two seasons: light and dark, the light being Beltane on May 1st and Samhain on November 1st.
Most of us believe that Samhain is the more important celebration; it marked the beginning of a whole new year. We know that in the dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seeds below the ground. Beltane welcomes in summertime with joyous celebrations at dawn. The most magically potent time of this celebrations is Hallows Eve, the night of October 31st, known today of course, as Halloween.
Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) translates to summer’s end. In Scotland and Ireland, Halloween is known as OÃche Shamhna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter’s calend.
For workers of the land Samhain marked the first day of winter, when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to shelter for the winter. Those destined for the table were slaughtered, after being offered / devoted to our Gods.
All of the years harvest was gathered, which included turnips, barley, oats, apples and wheat. Come November, the faeries would blast every growing plant with their breath, blighting any nuts and berries remaining on the hedgerows.
Wood and peat was stacked high by the families hearth, it was a joyous time for families, working together in the kitchen baking and salting their meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come.
In early Ireland, people gathered at the ritual centers of their tribes, Samhain was the principal calendar feast of the year. The greatest assembly was the ‘Feast of Tara,’ focusing on the royal seat of the High King as the heart of the sacred land, the point of conception for the New Year, the hill of Tara is still as magnificent today as it was then, you can still feel the spirits of our folk who walked those same green hills.
In every household throughout the Ireland, hearth-fires were extinguished. They all waited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year — not at Tara, but at Tlachtga, a hill twelve miles to the northwest. It marked the burial-place of Tlachtga, daughter of the great druid Mogh Ruith, who may once have been a goddess.
At all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, so many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanks for their harvest. Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire, and at the end of the ceremonies, brands were lit from the great fire of Tara to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe, as at Beltane. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come.
The Samhain fires continued to blaze down the through the centuries. In the 1860s the Halloween bonfires were still so popular in Scotland that one traveler reported seeing thirty fires lighting up the hillsides all on one night, each surrounded by rings of dancing figures, a practice which continued up to the first World War.
Young people and servants lit brands from the fire and ran around the fields and hedges of house and farm, while community leaders surrounded parish boundaries with a magic circle of light. Afterwards, ashes from the fires were sprinkled over the fields to protect them during the winter months — and of course, they also improved the soil. The bonfire provided an island of light within the oncoming tide of winter darkness, keeping away cold, discomfort, and evil spirits long before electricity illumined our nights. When the last flame sank down, it was time to run as fast as you could for home, raising the cry, The black sow without a tail take the hindmost.
In Ireland we still have Hallows Eve fires and everybody from our community participates in them, children and adults alike.
Source. The History of Samhain by Agnus C