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.