The word Samhain seems to have come from the word samhraidreadh, which in the Gaelic, the language of the Celts, means “summer’s end.” The Celts divided the year up into two parts; the Winter Half, or Dark Half, and the Summer Half, or Light Half. The Celts considered the day as starting with evening, instead of midnight or morning, and so it was with the year. As the Celts went into the darkening season, they went into their new year.
Samhain was a one of the four yearly Fire Festivals celebrated by the Druids of the Celtic lands. These festivals lasted three days, and were celebrated on the seasonal turning points, which were the points between equinoxes and solstices. At the Samhain fire festival, and at it’s cross-point, Beltane, once the community fire was built, all fires in family hearths were let to go out. These two times were the only times during the year that the hearth fire was extinguished. On the final morning of the festival, the head of each house would take embers from the community fire and restart the fire in their hearth.
In the Celtic tradition, the day before Samhain was considered the last day of the old year, and the day after Samhain was considered the first day of the new year. The day of Samhain was considered a time between times, a day between years, and a world between worlds. It was a very magical day.
The Celts believed that Samhain was a time where the world of spirits (where the dead, the faeries and other supernatural beings dwelt) and the world of the living were closest. They believed that the spirits of the dead would come and walk among the living during this festival. Many Celts dressed in costumes of spirits and faeries to make the wandering spirits feel at home.
Often, too, it was the poor of the community who would wonder begging food in the guise of the spirits. And the homesteaders would not want to bring the disfavor of the spirits upon them by acting selfishly. So the hungry would be fed on Samhain, and the ancestors would bring blessings to those who had been generous.
Another aspect of this festival is the story of the Celtic God of Sun and Vegetation, Lugh. Having given-in to wounds received on Mabon (the autumnal equinox) in mid-September, Lugh was believed to die each year during this time. (And each year The Sun God would be reborn on winter solstice.) Lugh was killed by his shadow self and twin, Tanist; the Horned God, the Dark Lord, the Lord of Misrule.
Under the rule of Misrule, this was a time when the usual rules were not lived by. The Celts usually lived by strict rules, but during Samhain the rules were laid aside, and mischief was made, fortunes were told, and revels were had. Men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and bands of young people would wander for miles seeking food and drink from the farmsteads in return for the entertainment they offered. This is where one of the American traditions of Hallowe’en came from. Trick-or-treating was once called mumming, and was a time where groups of people, adults and children alike, would go from door to door in costume singing, jesting and posing as spirits. The people they visited would offer treats in exchange for the entertainment, and in order to create goodwill with the spirits.
Ancient people lived with a much closer relationship with death than many Americans do, and Samhain was a time of getting ready to face the possible losses that would be brought by winter. Herds of livestock were culled; the weak, sickly and old animals were slaughtered, so that there would be enough food for the healthy livestock to survive the winter. Samhain was considered the third, and last, harvest of the season. Called the Red Harvest, this harvest was of the meat. Some of the meat was salted and saved for winter, and some of the meat and all the bones were burned on the bone-fire (possibly the origin of the word bonfire) in offering to the spirits. The bone ash was used to nourish the fields where crops would be grown the next year.
Jack-o-lanterns were originally carved from turnips and other tubers, and were made as a warding to keep unfriendly spirits, mischievous faeries and hungry souls from stopping over. Bonfires were built on hilltops to light the way for the wandering dead, and to give them light and comfort in the darkness.
If any loved ones had died in the previous year, his or her family would put a lighted candle in the window to lead the spirit home. The living would leave doors and windows unlatched, and set a place at the supper table for their beloved dead. The family would eat in silence in honor of the dead, from whom death had taken voice.
The closeness of the different worlds during Samhain made it an especially easy time to catch a glimpse of the future, and many would play games of divination on Samhain eve. Apple bobbing descended from one of these games.
Los Dias de Muertos: Mexican Indian
This fiesta is a rich cultural and religious celebration originating in Mexico. Dia de los Muertos has roots in many indigenous Mexican Indian tribal traditions, including those of the Aztec, Mayan, Incan
and Toltec. After the invasion of the Spanish, Los Dias de Muertos came to include Catholic aspects as well, with much of the art and reverence including imagery of Jesus as one of the beloved dead.
Los Dias de Muertos is many days of celebrations, starting on October 31st with Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), dedicated to those who died young, Dia de Los Santos (Day of the Saints) on November 1st, and Dia de los Difuntos (All Souls Day) on November 2nd. There are parades, and a day and night is traditionally spent in the cemetery. The gravesites are cleaned and richly decorated with marigolds (the scent of which is believed to call the spirits of the dead home), bread and candy. Much attention is given to making the gravesites beautiful and spending time together remembering dear ones who have passed on. People bring musical instruments, blankets and baskets of food, and spend all night in vigil and celebration at the gravesides of their beloved dead.
Creation of huge family altars to the dead is central to the celebration of Los Dias de Muertos. These altars hold pictures of those who have passed, marigolds, brightly colored paper decorations (papél picados, papier maché skeletons attending to all the tasks and joys of life, smiling skulls and coffins made of a sugary confection called alfeñique, personal belongings of those who have died, water, salt, and an incense censer with copal resin burning. Sugar skulls, sweet Pan de Muertos (Bread of the Dead) and favorite foods of those being honored adorn the altars and are given out as treats. No expense of time, energy or money is spared in preparing the family altar.
A lighted candle on the altar represents each family member who has died in the previous year during the festivities, with one extra candle so no spirit is left out. The beloved dead are expected to visit during the festival and to partake of the ofrendas (offerings) piled high upon the altar.
In many small towns, doors are left open to encourage visitors, both alive and in spirit form, to enter homes, view the family altars, and partake of the sacred foods and drinks.
Here in the United States, we are lucky to have the influence of the Celtic (by way of family lineage in some cases, and literature in others) and the Mexican (especially in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas) ways of celebrating this wonderful festival that honors death as just another transformation in the flow of life.
Here, we celebrate Halloween by dressing in costume, transforming ourselves into our dearest dreams or our scariest nightmares. We get to go out into the world as someone other than we usually are.
“Misrule” is still huge part of Halloween. People do things like yell “Happy Easter!” and reply with “Merry Christmas!” as they pass one another. On the less fun side of things, some see Halloween as an opportunity to perform dastardly deeds (like egging houses, smashing pumpkins, T.P.ing cars) that would be better left to the spirits!
Trick-or-treating is a gentler side of this tradition. Though trick-or-treating doesn’t always hold the beauty of a visit from the beloved dead, or the fun of a band of mummers, at least it’s not hurting anyone. At best, it is an opportunity to be out on the streets with friends and family, a part of a community, sharing an experience with others that doesn’t involve sitting back and watching the new Hollywood blockbuster.
Every year, holidays in America become more and more commercial. This year Halloween themed toys, gimmicks and costumery were out on the shelves by the beginning of the school year. But, you can decide to transform Halloween into a heartfelt and personal experience of the beauty of life and death.
What part of the celebrations you have read about stand out for you? The beautiful altars for the dead? Maybe you can find a local Mexican American cultural center and visit during Los Dias de Muertos? Maybe you liked the origins of trick-or-treating? This Halloween you could make a play with your friends, and perform it at each house you visit on Halloween. Or, perhaps the idea of giving generously at this time of year sounds good. With the help of a teacher in your school, you could set up a canned food drive for those in your community who do not have what they need to be warm and happy.
Activity: Making Alfeñique
These sugar calaveras (skulls) will be a fun, beautiful and spooky gift to give to your friends, or to place on your own altare de Muertos.
2 cups powdered (confectioners) sugar
1 egg white
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 mixing bowls
Clear, clean, dry surface for working the alfeñique
Wooden mixing spoon
Small plastic zip-lock baggie
Small bowls or saucers for food coloring
1 very fine paintbrush for each person who wants to paint alfeñique
1. Sift sugar into one mixing bowl.
2. Separate egg yolk from white. Throw away yolk.
3. Whip egg white until it is stiff enough to make peaks, in the other mixing bowl.
4. Still using the egg beater, mix vanilla into the egg whites.
5. Bit by bit, mix the sugar into the egg white mixture with the wooden mixing spoon.
6. Once the sugar and the egg mixture are so dry they start to crumble, work the mixture with your fingers until you can form it into a small ball.
7. Dust the dry surface with cornstarch.
8. On this surface, knead the mixture until the ball of alfenique is smooth.
9. Put the smooth ball into the plastic bag, and chill.
10. Once chilled, work the alfeñique into skull shapes, or whatever shapes you like.
11. Let alfeñique dry.
12. Once dry, paint with food coloring.
Recipe: Magickal Mulled Cider and Spirit Cakes
This Magickal Mulled Cider uses one of the most popular Halloween treats –apples- as a base for spices, which are full of magick! Listed below are some powers that these spices are believed to have, but it is also important to know that these powers change, sometimes from person to person.
The most important thing to remember when working magick of any kind, is that your intention (what you want to make happen) is the most important tool you have for any spell-working. So, as you work with this recipe, see what you think each spice does. Hold the spices in your hand, one at a time, and let your body tell you what each one is good for.
You can also give something a meaning. Though this may be considered a superstition by many, but what you believe has a lot of power. You can create meaning, a new reality even, just by believing.
Here are some traditional powers the spices you will use today are believed to have: Cloves are considered helpful to those in mourning, and they bring prophecy and offer protection. Nutmeg brings dreams, vision and wealth. Cinnamon is good for strengthening magickal acts, bringing success, wealth and health, bringing the second sight – the sight of prophecy – and it warms the spirit and the body. Allspice is for strengthening a community. Ginger warms, energizes and purifies. Lemon is for purification, and orange for love and vision.
This Magickal Cider will bring visions, comfort, warmth, health, wealth, love and a strong sense of community to all you share it with. It is great for a Halloween party, a Samhain night ritual, or anytime you feel the need for this warm magick. What a great way to enter into this new season. Don’t you think?
Magickal Mulled Cider
1/2 gallon apple cider
3 cinnamon sticks for the pot,
Cinnamon sticks, one each per mug (optional)
1 Tablespoon whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg –or- 1/8 teaspoon dry, powdered nutmeg
5 pieces whole allspice
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger –or- 1/4 teaspoon dry, powdered ginger
1 pinch ground cinnamon per mug
1 tablespoon dried orange peel –or- peel of one fresh orange
Pieces of fresh orange peel cut into stars and other shapes, one per mug (optional)
1 lemon, juiced and pulped
Large (6 Quart) saucepan
Small muslin spice bag –or- cheese cloth –or- a tea strainer
Wooden mixing spoon
Mugs all around
1. Heat cider to a simmer in the sauce pan.
2. While cider heats, grate ginger and nutmeg onto plate.
3. If using fresh orange peel, cut peel into small pieces. (You can cut designs if you like. Stars, pumpkins, circles. Especially good for pieces to put into mugs.)
4. If you don’t like to have to strain the cider, put spices and peel into a spice bag, or tie in cheese cloth. (I prefer to leave the spices loose, and don’t mind straining. If you are the same, skip this step.)
5. Using wooden spoon, mix the cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cinnamon sticks, cloves, nutmeg, orange peel, lemon juice and pulp into the cider.
6. Allow to simmer for at least an hour and a half.
7. Serve hot. Ladle into mugs, and place a fresh cinnamon stick (optional) and fresh piece of orange peel in each mug.
If the cider is too spicy, or not spicy enough for your tastes, next time add more or less of whatever you want.
Serves: Many revelers
These cakes have lost of stories. The one thing you can be sure of is that they will fill the tummies of hungry visitors, spirit and living alike. This recipe includes rosemary for remembrance, and salt for cleansing.
All parts of this recipe are magick in some way. These are a few parts that have stories: Oat is useful for increasing the wealth of your home, and in lifting a bad mood. Wheat is for fertility, and is a wonderful way to recognize the relationship between life and death at this time of year. At this time, the seeds plowed under in the fields wait for the springtime warmth to sprout, and grow again.
6 oz. butter, softened
6 oz. fine, granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
1 lb. flour – unbleached wheat, whole wheat, oat, or a mixture.
A pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of ground allspice –or- mixed spices -which do you think would taste good? What kind of magick do you want in these cakes?
1 teaspoon of fresh rosemary, chopped finely.
3 oz. currants
A little warm milk
1. Set the oven to 350ºF.
2. Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until fluffy.
3. Beat in the egg yolks.
4. Sift together the flour, salt and spice.
5. Add currants.
6. Fold the currants and the flour, salt and spice into the egg mixture.
7. Add milk bit by bit, to form a soft dough.
8. Divide into pieces and form into flat cakes.
9. Place on a greased baking sheet.
10. Cut designs into the top of cakes.
11. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden.