Saints, Souls, Hallows and Samhain

Photo by Victorya Gorbatikova on

Samhain (pronounced SAH-win, not Sam Hain) is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the “darker half” of the year.

It is celebrated from sunset on the last day of October until sunset on the first day of November. This time was chosen because it is the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. If you are wondering if this has some connection to our Halloween, read on.

Along with Imbolc,  Beltane and Lughnasadh it makes up the four Gaelic seasonal festivals. I have written before about Beltane, the ancient Celtic festival meaning “May First.” It was traditionally celebrated with large bonfires to mark spring transitioning to summer.  Cattle were driven through the Beltane bonfires for purification and fertility.

In Modern Irish, the name is Samhain, in Scottish Gaelic Samhainn and in Manx Gaelic Sauin. These are also the names for the month of November in each language, shortened from other forms.

These names all come from the Old Irish samain, samuin or samfuin all of which referred to November first and the festival and royal assembly that was held on that date in medieval Ireland. It seems to have been translated as “summer’s end.”

If you read Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, he says that May 1 and November 1 may not have been important to European farmers, but they were important to herdsmen. The May date would be the beginning of summer and the time when herds could be driven to the upland summer pastures. November 1 would mark the beginning of winter and the time to bring them back. Frazer suggests that this halving of the year comes from the time when the Celts were mainly pastoral people who were dependent on their herds.

In medieval Ireland, Samhain marked the end of the season for trading and a time for tribal gatherings.  It was a time for storytelling and Samhain appears in pre-Christian Irish literature.  Many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain.

In the 9th century, the Roman Catholic Church shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to November first, while the next day later became All Souls’ Day. The Church tried to turn many of the “pagan” holidays into something Catholic.

Over time, the last night of October came to be called All Hallows’ Eve (or All Hallows’ Even). Samhain certainly influenced All Hallows’ Eve, and All Hallows’ Eve influenced the celebration of Samhain, and the two eventually morphed into the secular holiday known as Halloween.

Since the late 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Samhain, or something based on it, as a religious holiday.

Thoughts Tonsorial


I got a haircut this past week. I also shaved off my beard and mustache. Spring cleaning.  I also stumbled on the image above of a medieval monk. I wondered what was going on with that haircut.

I know that many religions require practitioners to follow strict regulations. Some of those are designed to lessen individuality. The individual is not good for the path to God or enlightenment.

I studied for a time at a Buddhist monastery. Those monks shave their heads clean. It symbolizes that they are cutting ties with the secular world.

In medieval times, Catholic monks also needed a special haircut. It was not a full shaved head. It was only the top of their scalps that were shaved and the edges were left untouched. This unique haircut is called the Tonsure, or Tonsura in Latin. The word tonsure means “clipping”, as in clipping your hair off.

It goes back to around 1073 when Pope Gregorio VII was enthroned. Things were pretty laid back about haircuts and dress. There was even dating amongst monks, priests, and nuns. Gregorio decided to clamp down on everything from corruption and abstinence – to standardizing haircuts.

St. Paul
Saint Paul

He thought that imitating Saint Paul, who was depicted as balding with a high forehead (which apparently was supposed to signify great wisdom and learning), would show that like Paul they were giving their lives to God. Saint Paul wrote thirteen books of the Bible and spread Christianity across the Roman Empire in his lifetime. He seems like an exemplary model.

But there was a problem with shaving the monks’ heads. The Bible forbids cutting the hair at the edge of one’s head or beard. See Leviticus 19:28. According to that, I violated the rules this past week because it says “You must not cut off the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” I cut off all of my beard.

The Pope and the monks wanted to imitate Saint Paul but were afraid to go against the Bible. So, the monks shaved the top of their heads to show tribute to Saint Paul but kept the edges of their hair to respect the Bible. And so, the tonsure became the look of almost every Catholic monk in Europe in medieval times.

It started to disappear as the Church went through changes like the Crusade wars and Luther’s Reformation. But it was not until 1972 that Pope Paul VI banned the tonsure haircut for any Catholic monks and the haircut from 900 years before disappeared.

That Dialogue on Opposing World Systems

Galileo, Copernicus
Galileo and Copernicus    (Gilgub/Flickr)

The title “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” certainly sounds like a heavy topic. It was heavy in 1632 when Galileo published it. The two systems were the Ptolemaic and the Copernican theories of cosmology. It is less controversial and easier to understand today.

Ptolemy, following the tradition of Aristotle, believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, and everything — Sun, Moon, planets, and stars — revolved around it.

Copernicus, on the other hand, posited that the Sun is the center of the universe, and though we seem to be standing still, we are in fact hurtling through space as we circle the star.

I used to have a quotation in my middle school classroom for my students that said “You are not the center of the universe” – Copernicus. Nicholas didn’t say exactly that quote, and he wasn’t specifically referencing my young teen students, but it was a good point-of-departure quote for discussion.

Galileo had spoken with Pope Urban VIII earlier and discussed his tide theory as proof that the Earth moved through space – not that the Sun was the center of the universe. The Pope granted him permission to write “Dialogue on the Tides” but that the Copernican theory should be treated as hypothetical in the book. Wisely, Galileo wrote the book as a series of discussions between two philosophers. One believed in Copernicus, one believed in Ptolemy, and a neutral but well-educated layman served as a moderator. That got it past the Catholic censors.

But Galileo was Copernican all the way and the popular book did not please Pope Urban VIII who had Galileo tried by the Inquisition. They ruled that he was “vehemently suspect of heresy” and too close to endorsing Copernican theory and the book was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Galileo was ordered to recant and recite weekly psalms of penitence. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, and none of his later books were permitted to be published in his lifetime.

The Dialogue on Opposing World Systems remained on the Index of Forbidden Books until 1835. Change is slow in religion – but not in science.

Further Reading

The Essential Galileo

Candelora and Winter Weather

Per la Santa Candelora se nevica o se plora, dell’inverno siamo fora, ma se è sole o solicello, siamo sempre a mezzo inverno
(“For the Holy Candelora, if it snows or if it rains, we are through with winter, but if there is sunshine or even just a little sun, we are still in the middle of winter”)


Candelora is a Roman Catholic religious festival celebrated in Italy on February 2. This year the day is also the American Groundhog Day, Super Bowl of football – and another day of the impeachment proceedings for President Trump. The Presentazione del Signore (Presentation of Our Lord) had been called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.

It is more popularly called the feast of Candelora and in English-speaking countries, it is known as Candlemas Day (Candle Mass).

On Candlelora, all the candles to be used in the church throughout the year are consecrated as the symbolic “light of the world.”

At one time, the custom that a Jewish woman, including Jesus’ mother, would be considered impure for the 40 days after the delivery of a male child and were not allowed to worship in the temple. After the 40 days, these women were brought to the temple to be purified.

February 2 is 40 days after December 25, the day the Church marks the birth of Jesus. This traditional Christian festival also marks the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple, a holiday was observed by Christians in Jerusalem as early as the fourth century AD. By the middle of the fifth century, the celebration included lighting candles to symbolize Jesus Christ as the light, and the ritual of blessing of the candles became common practice around the eleventh century.

The “coincidence” of our Groundhog Day being on the same day is one of the weather.  As the proverb of weather lore stated on the top of this post shows, noting the weather on February 2 is supposed to predict the weather for the remaining six weeks of winter.

Is it another coincidence that February 2 is also a cross-quarter day, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox? No coincidences.  Some people of the Northern Hemisphere have believed for millennia that if the sun comes out at the mid-way point between winter and spring, winter weather would continue for another six weeks. I have always thought that it seems more logical that NO sun on this day would suggest that winter would continue, but that’s not the tradition.

Since the sixteenth century, North American folklore has followed some old European traditions that if on February 2 a groundhog/woodchuck comes out of its hole after winter hibernation and fails to see its shadow because the weather is cloudy, winter will soon end. If on the other hand, it is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow, it will retreat into its burrow, and winter will continue for six more weeks.

The weakest part of our modern American celebration is that those poor groundhogs do not “emerge” naturally from their burrows because of some internal clock, environmental conditions or planetary magic. They are forced into the public.

There are some scientific bases for using signs in nature to predict the change of seasons and weather. Our Groundhog Day and Candlelora has no scientific basis.

My friend, Patricia, lives in Florence and might be celebrating Candelora (‘Candelaia’ in Tuscan dialect) there this weekend. It is a tradition in Tuscany that goes back to the Middle Ages.  Florentine churches still distribute holy candles to parishioners on this day.

Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve


Robert Herrick’s poem is for the Eve of Candlemas. Candlemas was marked on February 2nd as the day on which Christmas decorations of greenery were removed from people’s homes. This was also a time that people brought their candles to church to be blessed. In the Catholic Church, it is the celebration of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation in the Temple of Jesus.

by Robert Herrick

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter’s eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

In the traditions and superstitions of an earlier time, it was said that leaving any traces of berries, holly and other Christmas decorations would bring death among the congregation before another year is out. Harsh stuff.  And another belief was that anyone who hears funeral bells tolling from a church on Candlemas will soon hear of the death of a close friend or relative. Each toll of the bell represents a day that will pass before the unfortunate news is learned.

In Scotland and northern England, Candlemas was one of the traditional quarter “term days” when quarterly rents were due for payment, as well as the day or term for various other business transactions, including the hiring of servants. In England, that tradition existed into the 18th century and in Scotland didn’t change until a law was passed in 1991.

Saint Brigid’s cross

Besides being Candlemas Eve, today is also Saint Brigid’s Day celebrated by some in Ireland. Whether Brigid was a real person or if she was a goddess that Christianity took over may never be decided. Saint Brigid was known for her generosity. She gave away her belongings, and God always restored them. Though she was stationed at a monastery of men and women in Kildare, she traveled the island to give aid.

When people brought their candles to church to be blessed, some also brought their Brigid’s crosses too. The fire element is also in the tradition that Saint Brigid put a ring a lighted candles on her head and led the Virgin Mary into the temple in Jerusalem.

The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, February 2nd, celebrates an early episode in the life of Jesus.  Besides Candlemas, it is also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and the Meeting of the Lord.

Candlemas Bells, also known as Snowdrops

Though it is primarily a religious holiday, it also has ancient  traditions and it is sometimes seen as the first sign of spring.

Adding to our weather lore, it was believed in the United Kingdom that good weather at Candlemas is taken to indicate that some severe winter weather is still to come.

If Candlemas Day is clear and bright,
winter will have another bite.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
winter is gone and will not come again.

This is similar to the Groundhog Day tradition in the United States.

It was also believed that bears and wolves emerge from hibernation on this day to check the weather. If they choose to return to their lairs on this day, it is interpreted as meaning severe weather will continue for at least another forty days.

Some of the same traditions are held in Italy, where it is called Candelora.