As part of my April A-Z blog series on all things mystical, here's the letter S...
This is the second of three pagan holidays I will discuss in this series, all of which crossover into popular contemporary holidays. Of these, Samhain is considered the holiest day of the year.
Samhain is the pagan New Year, celebrated since the time of the ancient Celts, who divided their calendar into four seasons, beginning with Samhain in November. Throughout much of the world, the eve of Samhain is celebrated on October 31 under a variety of names: All Hallows, All Saint's, Guy Fawkes' Night, the Festival of the Dead...and Halloween.
Why such a focus on all things dead and macabre at this time? The belief surrounding this is that the veil between the worlds of the living and dead are thinnest on the eve of Samhain, making contact with spirits and the deceased most likely. Those who had passed on could return to their former towns, where folk would provide food and merriment to entertain them with. As with all New Year's celebrations, it is a time to remember what has gone before, and to reflect upon that which lies ahead. In addition, pagan tradition holds that the end of the year marks the death of the God, who will be reborn as the Wheel of the Year turns again.
Divination is a common practice at this time, as the thinning between worlds makes it easier to seek answers from the beyond.
From a practical standpoint, Samhain was also a time to celebrate the final gathering in of peoples and food stores in preparation for the long winter months ahead.
Trick or treating began during the Middle Ages, though initially called "souling." Poor folks would go door to door on All Saint's, begging for food in exchange for prayers for the dead. Though souling was not practiced worldwide, many countries adapted the modern version.
Bobbing for apples, another common "Halloween" tradition, was based on a game of divination the ancients played to predict marriages for the coming year. The apple represented the goddess Pomona, goddess of fertility, and young unmarrieds would bob for these apples either in barrels of water or hanging from strings. The first one to succeed at biting into an apple would be the next to wed. Far from mere fun, the ability to survive to adulthood, and wed to bring forth a new generation, was a tough prospect in ancient times.
Though some of the spiritual implications and origins of the holiday vary from region to region, some form of celebration of the dead can be found in nearly every part of the world, most at the same time of the year. It is interesting to note such similarities coexisting from ancient times between the wide and varied beliefs of modern cultures.