Friday, November 5, 2010

Samhain - The Real All Hallows

Since I've been doing all this odd-ball research I figured I would share some of my findings with you. 

I grew up in Albany NY.  Albany used to be the second stop of Sinn Fein right after Boston.  I remember the free concert series in parks in Saratoga Springs, Schenectady, Troy, Albany, and the surrounding area as primarily consisting of fiddles, accordions, harps, and bodhrans. Even to the south of Albany, when I attended Bard College, we visited a Celtic Mountain Festival where there were traditional Celtic games.

In 9th grade my family visited Britain for a month.  One week was entirely devoted to Scotland where we learned about my father's clan.  I have to say, it was the first place I actually felt at home in my soul.  Keep in mind, Celts are one of the last groups of white people to still have something like tribal affiliation.  Anyone in the US who has Celtic pride will likely also have a tattoo somewhere on their body depicting their clan coat of arms.

Why do I tell you all this? Because unlike some pre-Christian holidays, the Celtic New Year is alive and well.  I would go so far as to say it is thriving. The only problem is, most people don't know what they're celebrating.

Samhain, the Celtic New Year, marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark part of the year.  Villages would start the celebration by lighting a great bonfire (which incidentally, is a part of all Celtic festivals).  All the families in the village would symbolically take a bit of the fire back to their homes to light their way through the darker days of the year. Villages would cull their herds to ensure the health of their livestock through the dark months.   The festival itself could last anywhere from three days to a week.  During that time, a lot of effort was spent on lighter pursuits because the work for the land was over.  This meant young people would spend their time courting.  A good bit of divination went on in order for young people to discover the name of their future partner.  They would peel and apple completely, throwing the peel over their shoulder to see what letter it would form - this was to be the first letter of their spouse's first name.  They would put nuts in the fire and attempt to divine letters and names that way.  Even cracking eggs and pouring the contents into a cup was supposed to help guide you to your husband or wife.

Because Samhain marks a transition time of year, the veil between the spirit world and the world of the living is very thin.  It is important to note, that any place where there is transition in Celtic myth and customs is a time where connections between the Otherworld are more likely.  The other holiday of similar transition is Beltane, or May Day.  Being that Samhain is marking the transition to the darker portion of the year, there is greater emphasis on spirits (dressing in costumes) and keeping them at bay (carving turnips into lanterns).

My guess is these two holidays are the most important because Celtic traditions originally derived from the Gauls.  In Gaulish, there are only two seasons, winter and summer.  These are delineated by Samhain and Beltane. 

The conception of Halloween now involves candy, wild costumes, and a whole lot of commercialism.  While I'm glad that one of the old holidays is still alive and well, I'm sad it has turned into what it has when its history is rich and beautiful, about community and family. Maybe someday it will come back around closer to what it used to be.

Since we're still within a week after the date, let me just wish you a happy Samhain.

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