And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
~Traditional Scottish Prayer
Just as the new day in the Celtic tradition begins with nightfall, so too does the new year begin as darkness closes in around us. Samhain (pronounced sow-in) starts at sun down on October 31 and marks the beginning of the new year on the Celtic calendar.
Like other threshold times and places, the beginning of Samhain, is a thin time when the veil between heaven and earth, this world and the next, is particularly permeable. It was thought that this liminal time allowed the ghosts of ancestors to come back and visit their former homes, along with more undesirable visitors from the other world who managed to sneak through.
Many of our Halloween traditions come from this idea of discouraging the not-so-friendly spirits from visiting. Jack-o-lanterns carved from rutabagas or turnips were placed in windows or by doorways to frighten away trickster spirits. In case scare tactics didn't work, treats of food were left as offerings for the ghosties and ghoulies and faerie folk who might be out wandering on Samhain night. Later customs saw people dressing up as these creatures, going from house to house to collect the treats and sometimes playing a trick or two on their neighbors in the process.
Community bonfires are one of the earliest Samhain traditions. Bonfires were lit in the hills or in the center of towns to keep the evil spirits at bay. As people left their homes to participate in revelries with their neighbors they'd extinguish the fire in their hearths. Before returning home, they'd take fire from the communal bonfire in order to light their home fires afresh, often encircling their houses, barns and fields with the new fire as a form of purification and blessing.
In practical terms, Samhain was a time to finish bringing in the last of the harvest, move livestock from their summer pastures to shelter closer to home, and to begin to settle in for the long, dark months of winter where light and resources were scarce. It was a season not only to take stock, but also to plan for the year ahead.
Spiritually, Samhain offers us the opportunity to honor those who have gone before us. Festivals such as Dia de Muertos and All Saints and All Souls day on the Christian calendar invite us to give thanks for the wisdom of our ancestors and the inspiration of the saints who have shaped us. During Samhain as we reflect on those who have passed out of this life, we are also called to take stock and consider the things that may be germinating in the dark, waiting to be born into this world. Samhain is a time to douse the embers of the old fire and kindle new the sparks of new passion and energy in our lives.