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.

A Black Moon and Earthshine

Tomorrow night, April 30, 2022, there will be a Black Moon. It won’t look different, in fact, it won’t look like anything at all since a Black Moon is a name for a second New Moon in a single calendar month.

Full and New Moons can occur at different times because of time zone differences. It can even be in a different month. 

Black Moons may hold special significance to people who practice certain forms of Pagan religions and who believe certain actions become more potent when performed on the night of a Black Moon.

There was no New Moon in February this year which only happens about once every 19 years. There will be no Blue Moon in New York in 2022. That is a third Full Moon in a season with four Full Moons.

A sliver of a Waning Crescent Moon

The Waning Crescent Moon is the final stage of the lunar cycle and it begins when the sun illuminates less than half of the moon. This phase continues until the New Moon phase. This phase “ends” when the Moon and the Sun both rise at the same time, which starts the lunar cycle over again with the New Moon.

During this time, you can see the effect of “Earthshine.” It’s a matter of perspective. The Moon is always half-illuminated by sunlight just like Earth. A crescent Moon seen in the west after sunset or in the east before dawn is a sliver of the Moon’s lighted half.

When we see a crescent moon, that means that a nearly “Full Earth” appears in the Moon’s night sky. The full Earth illuminates the lunar landscape and that ic “Earthshine” – light from the nearly full Earth shining on the Moon.

Looking at Earth from the perspective of the far side of the Moon || Photo: Chinese Chang’e 5 T1 spacecraft

Feeling a Bit Pagan Today

bunny and eggs

There is a bit of the pagan in the air this spring Sunday.

The secular celebration of Easter is all from pagan traditions. You’re being a modern Anglo Saxon if you have that bunny and decorated eggs as part of this holiday weekend.

They worshipped Eostre who was their goddess of springtime. This was the time to celebrate the true return of the sun from a long winter. Not that the Sun had been gone entirely, but it did not hold the power that it has in the other three seasons. The Christian holiday of Easter and other religions used the spring equinox as a guide to their own holy days.

But how did we get a rabbit with eggs?

eggs Ukrainian Easter Eggs from the exhibition “The Pysanka: A Symbol Of Hope,” at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York. via CNN

Eostre saved a bird whose wings had frozen during the winter by turning it into a rabbit. That rabbit who had once been a bird retained its ability to lay eggs. Though never officially adapted by the church, the Easter Bunny was born.

Eggs had been a symbol of fertility for a much longer time than Christianity. Keep in mind that eggs from chickens and from birds natural come in many colors, so coloring them began as an imitation of nature.

Unlike today, eggs had once been much more scarce during the winter, so spring also meant the return of eggs to the diet. There are records of people giving each other decorated eggs at this time of year and as part of Easter celebrations that go back to the 11th century.

A Week of Saturnalia

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet
Saturnalia by Antoine Callet

I forgot to mark the start of Saturnalia this year.  This Roman holiday was a time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts, and the decoration of trees. Sound familiar?

Saturnalia was the pagan Roman winter solstice festival and honoring of Saturn who controlled the sowing of the new season’s crops, but Romans also began to spend the holiday gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts.

First-century poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as “the best of times… dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged.”

It’s not too late to do some Saturnalia celebrating as the holiday became a weeklong festival.

Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season and to honor Saturn (satus means sowing) and the cult of Saturn survived until the early third century AD in some places. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.

During the reign of Emperor Augustus, it was a two-day celebration on December 17 and 18. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event from December 17-25 and included the Winter Solstice.  Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25. Is this where Christmas came from?

Christmas owes something to this ancient Roman holiday and pagan festival. As with Christmas, Saturnalia started as a religious holiday, honoring the god Saturn, but evolved (or devolved) into just an excuse for revelry with its religious origins mostly forgotten.

I will note that devout Christians and some Biblical scholars will say that Saturnalia has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. They would say that the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy following the Annunciation on March 25th would produce a December 25th date for the birth of Christ.

An Elder Moon Ends the Year

Celtic trees
Celtic Tree cards

In the Northern Hemisphere, tonight’s December Full Moon is often called the Cold Moon or the Long Nights Moon. Certainly, this month is cold in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, and the long nights that accompany the winter solstice also make sense for a name.

Early Pagans saw this as a time of cleansing and ending bad habits to make one stronger to survive the cold winter ahead.

The Algonquin Indians used the Cold Moon name but I have also seen that some cultures connect this Full Moon with warmth. I had not heard of the Deborean Clan. A combination of Celtic traditional magical beliefs and Native American Cherokee spirituality make up their beliefs. Like the Wishram tribe who named this the Winter Houses Moon, this time is associated with being home and warm before a fire. The Zuni tribe called this the Moon Where the Sun Comes Home to Rest and maybe we should all try, if possible, to rest and recharge from this very difficult 2020.

The Sioux call this the Moon When Deer Shed Their Antlers which suggests the new start aspect that pagans celebrate at this time of year.

Celtic Tree

The Celts, on the other hand, call this the Elder Moon.  The first time I saw that name I thought it meant elder as in those of a greater age than us. I know that “elders” serve a large role in Native American traditions and culture. But in the Celtic Tree Calendar, this is the Elder Moon. I have since done some reading on Celtic Tree symbolism.

Elder trees are fragile and easily damaged but they recover quickly. In North America, Acer negundo, the box elder, is a native species of maple.  It grows quickly, often looks like a large bush and is a short-lived tree compared to oaks and other hardwoods.

The flowers and berries of the elder can be used to make wine. Elderflower wine was drunk at the Beltane celebrations. Elderberries were made into a wine at Samhain which was consumed to promote divination and hallucinations. My mother always bought elderberry wine at the end of the year, though divination and hallucinations were never part of our drinking of it. CAUTION The seeds, bark, leaves and flowers of the elder can be poisonous as is the unripe fruit so I would advise against preparing such beverages on your own.

With the winter solstice past, the Celts saw the Elder Moon as a time of endings. But endings also signal beginnings. This Full Moon is called Ruish by the Celts (roo-esh) who viewed this as an opportune time of creativity and renewal and planning for the new year.

Elder wood was said to protect against demons and other negative entities and it has magical connections to faeries and other nature spirits. In Ireland, the elder was considered a sacred tree and, like the hawthorn, it was forbidden to cut one down. The elder tree was prized for its many uses culinary, medicinal and mystical.

It is interesting that the early Christian church in trying to eliminate pagan beliefs gave the elder a bad reputation. It was said that the tree that Judas hanged himself from was an elder. It was sometimes said that Christ’s crucifixion cross was made of elder wood. The elder became associated with witches and tales of “elder-witches” associated with the devil were known in Ireland and Britain. Burning elder wood in your fireplace would bring the devil into your house.

More on Celtic tree divination in a future post. Right now, I have to get some elderberry wine.

Greetings From St. Nicholas and Krampus

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra. He was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra (now Turkey) during the time of the Roman Empire.

Many miracles attributed to his intercession led to his sainthood. His reputation evolved among the faithful and his legendary habit of secret gift-giving led to the traditional model of Santa Claus (“Saint Nick”),


Sinterklaas arriving in the Dutch town of Schiedam Image: WikimediaSaint Nicholas Day is observed on December 5/6 in Western Christian countries and December 19 in Eastern Christian countries on the Old Calendar. This day is celebrated as a Christian festival, but along with the attendance of Mass or other worship services, there are gifting traditions.

In Europe, especially in Germany and Poland, boys would dress as bishops begging alms for the poor.

In Ukraine, children wait for St. Nicholas to come and to put a present under their pillows. Gifts traditionally are given to children who were good during the year. Children who behaved badly may expect to find a twig or a piece of coal under their pillows.

In the Netherlands, Dutch children put out a clog shoe filled with hay and a carrot for Saint Nicholas’ horse. “Santa Claus” is itself derived in part from the Dutch Sinterklaas, the saint’s name in that language.

Some American children leave their shoes in the foyer on Saint Nicholas Eve in hope that Saint Nicholas will place some gifts or coins on the soles. The American Santa Claus, as well as the British Father Christmas, derive from Saint Nicholas and some traditions from other countries have been passed on, but the gift-giving tradition has been moved to Christmas Eve or Day rather than Saint Nicholas Day.

Besides Sinterklaas, earlier names for the legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas as a patron saint of children include De Sint (“The Saint”), De Goede Sint (“The Good Saint”), and De Goedheiligman (“The Good Holy Man”) in Dutch; Saint Nicolas in French; Sinteklaas in West Frisian; Sinterklaos in Limburgs; Saint-Nikloi in West Flemish; Kleeschen and Zinniklos in Luxembourgish; and Sankt Nikolaus or Nikolaus in German.

Of course, there is no hard evidence of any Nicholas type person’s miracles and the legend doesn’t stand up to scientific analysis. And most of what Americans now associate with Santa Claus (flying reindeer, down the chimney and other supernatural powers) come from the marketing of the commercialized version of Christmas.

Most people don’t know that while Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, he is also the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students in various cities and countries around Europe.

Some of the traditions followed in other countries bear little resemblance to the legendary St. Nick we know in the United States.

In Italy, San Nicola) is the patron of the city of Bari (where it is believed that his stolen remains are found) and their celebration is called the Festa di San Nicola. That occurs on May 7–9 of May and includes the relics of the saint carried on a boat on the sea in front of the city with many boats following (Festa a mare).

Also, since San Nicola is said to protect children and virgins, on this day in December the ritual of Rito delle nubili finds unmarried women seeking a husband at an early-morning Mass, in which they have to turn around a column 7 times.

My own childhood included not only Santa Claus and St. Nicholas but also the terrifying Krampus. My mother’s family were from Austria and my father’s side from Austria-Hungary (though Slovak by language). In those places, as well as in  Bavaria and Tyrol, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Croatia, this creature with Germanic folklore roots appears.

A person dressed as Krampus in Salzburg    (via Wikimedia)

You may have heard that Santa Claus keeps a list of who is naughty and who is nice, but Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as “half-goat, half-demon” who accompanies St. Nick. This demonic figure of the Krampus has the job of punishing children during the Yule season who have misbehaved. When I asked my mother how he punishes kids she sais “You don’t want to know.” He also sometimes captures the really naughty children in his sack and carries them away to his lair.

In some of these countries, the eve of St. NIck is called Krampus Night or Krampusnacht and that’s when he appears. In modern times, young men will dress up as the Krampus before St. Nicholas Day frightening children with rusty chains and bells. Sometimes accompanying St. Nicholas and sometimes on his own, Krampus visits homes and businesses.

When the Saint himself appears nowadays, he is usually in the Eastern Rite vestments of a bishop, and he carries a ceremonial staff.

Nicholas gives gifts. When not terrorizing children, Krampus supplies coal and ruten bundles. That is an object with pagan origins that may have had significance in pre-Christian initiation rites. They are bundles of birch branches that Krampus carries and with which he occasionally swats children.

Greetings from Krampus!
Hopefully, you did not send or receive any cards this week like this one from the early 1900s that reads “Greetings from Krampus!”