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.

All Hallows Day – a Midpoint

Halloween is the evening before the Christian holy days of All Hallows’ Day (also known as All Saints’ or Hallowmas) on November 1, and All Souls’ Day on November 2. Halloween, the modern popular cultural holiday, is also called All Hallows’ Eve.

It is not hard to see how this three-day observance of Allhallowtide that was dedicated to remembering the dead was popularized into our modern Halloween. Hallows are saints, martyrs, and all the faithful departed and they are supposed to be remembered now. That is an idea found in almost all religions, though marked in different ways and on different dates.

Many Halloween traditions originated from Celtic harvest festivals which may have pagan roots. Many pagan practices, such as the Gaelic festival Samhain, were appropriated and Christianized as a way to bring pagans into the church.

Samhain is celebrated from sunset on October 31 until sunset on November 1st. That time was chosen because it was the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

In Ireland, it is known as Samhain and in Scotland as Samhuinn and both translate as “summer’s end.” In Wales, it is Calan Gaeaf meaning “calends of winter.” In Cornwall, it is Allantide.

It marks the end of the green season. It is also a time when bare boughs make it easier to hunt and see your prey.

corn mask
American Indian Iroquois corn spirit mask

It was a time to appease the shadowy powers with offerings. A sacrificial victim may have once embodied the corn spirit of harvest or with the beating of the grain (threshing). Slaying the corn spirit was in earlier times the slaying of a tree or a vegetation spirit embodied in a tree or in a human or animal victim. American Indians had their own end-of-harvest corn spirit beliefs. It is ironic and gruesome that a human victim may have once been regarded as a “king” much like the mock kings or queens chosen at winter festivals.

With the rise of Christianity, a slain human or animal sacrifice became regarded as wrong and even as an offering to evil powers. Effigies of the corn spirit or even some saints were made but not sacrificed as part of the festival.

So Many Hallows Before the Darker Half of the Year

A cemetery decorated for All Hallows Day which is a religious holiday, but it still looks Halloween creepy here.

Everyone knows Halloween the holiday, but I’m always surprised how few people know the origin of the word itself. It is also written as Hallowe’en and it dates to about 1745. It might have an older Christian origin, though Christian churches often consider this holiday to be not holy day at all and more of a pagan celebration.

The verb, to hallow is “to make holy or sacred, to sanctify or consecrate, to venerate.” The adjective form is hallowed, which appears in “The Lord’s Prayer” (“hallowed be thy name”), means holy, consecrated, sacred, or revered.

The noun form, hallow (as used in Hallowtide) is a synonym for the word saint. The noun is from the Old English adjective hālig, “holy.”

In modern English usage, the noun “hallow” appears mostly in the compounds Hallowtide, Hallowmas, and Halloween.

Hallowtide and Hallowmas are not as well known as Halloween. Hallowtide is a liturgical season that includes Halloween and Hallowmas. The latter is the feast of Allhallows or All Saints’ Day, on November 1.

And now, here are the many hallows that have come to be and confuse us.

Halloween/Hallowe’en is a shortened form of “All Hallow Even(ing),” meaning “All Hallows’ Eve” or “All Saints’ Eve.”

Hallowmas is the day after Halloween and it is shortened from “Hallows’ Mass,” and is also known as “All Hallows’ Day” or “All Saints’ Day.”

So, the word “Hallowe’en” means “Saints’ evening” and it comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve. In that case, the word “eve” is “even” which is contracted to e’en or been. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Hallowe’en.

Call it Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve. It is celebrated in many countries on the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It begins the observance of Allhallowtide which is the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, but really all the faithful departed.

The history of all this is not clear. Some historians believe that Halloween traditions were influenced by ancient Celtic harvest festivals. The festival usually mentioned is the Gaelic festival Samhain. which marks the end of the harvest season and beginning of the “darker half” of the year – winter.

Another theory is that Samhain was “Christianized” to bring in pagans as All Hallow’s Day, along with its eve, by the early Church. And others believe that Halloween began solely as a Christian holiday marking the vigil of All Hallow’s Day. This is not uncommon in Christianity and other religions and is probably best known with Christmas Eve.


A version of this appeared earlier on one of my other blogs, Why Name It That?

Halloween in Paradelle


Whether you celebrate Halloween or Hallowtide or Samhain (a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year) or any other harvest, end of the season, the start of the winter holiday, I have probably written something about it here? (Did I miss something? Post a comment.)

Samhain is celebrated from sunset on October 31st until sunset on November first and was chosen because it was the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.  It is just one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals which includes Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh.

But I have considered Halloween, Martians and Radio Terrorists (about when those Martians landed in New Jersey) and written about a book and movie that I connect with this time of year, Something Wicked This Way Comes.


So, with all that, you might assume I am a big fan of Halloween. Not at all.

Possibly, my least favorite calendar event.

I hated dressing up as a kid. I thought trick-or-treating was borderline begging.

In my little part of Paradelle, I am one of those people who usually tries to be away from my darkened home on Halloween because I don’t want to answer the doorbell. Kind of a Halloween Grinch.

The only time I ever got into Halloween celebrating was when my sons were young. And maybe I’ll get back into it again if I become Grandpa Grinch.

You can save me a few peanut butter cups though…

The Time of No Time

The Celtic calendar consists of thirteen months based on the lunar cycle. The holiday called Samhain marks the end of  the year. It is celebrated from sunset on October 31st until sunset on November first.

This time was chosen because it was the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, and so this Gaelic festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year.

An interesting feature of this lunar calendar is that after Samhain there is a period of five days that are not a part of the calendar year. This is a time considered to be between the states of chaos and change. It is a transition between the old and new year. It is a period of “no-time” and we enter that period tonight.

After we pass through these transitional five days of “no-time,” the new year begins.

Of course, a lunar calendar isn’t as accurate as our modern calendar, but in its time it served the needs of people. The no-time was  a way to adjust the lunar calendar to make a year that coincided with astronomical events.

Afte the period of no-time, a short first month of Maghieden launches the year. It is considered an auspicious time for births, beginnings and a good time to start a journey. Maghieden lasts until the next full moon making it the shortest month of the year.

In this kind of lunar calendar the “Full Moon” marks a period of time rather than an event on one night. It would be as if when the Full Moon came next for us we called it the November Moon and started the month on that day and it lasted until the December Full Moon.


Hallowtide at Summer’s End

Painting by Viktor Titov

When crimson leaves fell to the mud, the gods did thirst for human blood…

By way of a Celtic mythology page on Facebook, I found this information about the festival of Hallowtide which goes by different names in different parts of the Celtic-speaking world.

In Ireland, it is known as Samhain. In Scotland as Samhuinn. In Man as Sauin. All 3 names mean “summer’s end.”

In  Wales, it is Calan Gaeaf and in Breizh it is known as Kala-Goañv, meaning “calends of winter.” In Cornwall, it is Allantide.

“Hallowtide marked the end of the leafy half of the year and the beginning of the time of bare boughs. At this time it was easier to see prey in the forested chases and the antlered stag seemed to be an animal embodiment of the bare boughs of the winter. It was a time to appease the shadowy powers with offerings.

Though the sacrificial victim had come to be regarded as an offering to the powers of blight, he may once have represented a divinity of growth or, in earlier times, the corn spirit. Such a victim was slain at harvest. Harvest is often late in northern Celtic regions, and the slaying was sometimes connected not with the harvesting but with the later threshing. This would bring it near the Samhain festival at the end of October.

The slaying of the “corn spirit” was derived from the earlier slaying of a tree or vegetation spirit embodied in a tree but could also be a human or animal. The corn spirit was embodied in the last sheaf cut as well as in an animal or human being. This human victim may have been regarded as a king since in late popular custom a mock king is chosen at winter festivals.

In other cases, the effigy of a saint is hung up and carried around to different houses, part of the effigy being left at each house. The saint has probably succeeded the traditional ritual of having a divine victim.

The primitive period in which the corn spirit was regarded as female, with a woman as her human representative, is also recalled in folk customs. The last sheaf cut is called the Maiden or the Mother. In Northamptonshire, girls choose a queen on St. Catharine’s Day, November 26th. In some Christmas pageants, “Yule’s wife,” as well as Yule, is present, which corresponds to the May Queen of the summer festival.