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Samhain, The Celtic New Year

Author: Gordon Ireland

Paula & Gordon Ireland Proprietors
Earth Spirit Emporium: Books & Stuff
"Where Olde Traditions meet the New Age"

Samhain (pronounced Sowain, Sah-uin, or Sahm-hayn) is also called the Celtic
New Year, The Third harvest, All Hollows Eve, the Day of the Dead, and of
course Halloween. There are many more names for Samhain, but rather then
having a different meaning, they are actual different variations of the same
name. For example: All Hollows Eve is also equal to All Saints Eve; the Day
of the Dead is also the Feast of Spirits; and Samhain is also called
Samhuinn. McCoy claims that there are many possibilities for the name
Samhain, one being that it is named for the Aryan God of the Dead, Sama. The
second, is that is Gaelic for summers end, Samhraidhreach. The third one,
and the more likely, is that it is Irish Gaelic for November (McCoy page

Samhain along with Beltane is one of the original fire festivals. Beltane is
the Sabbat to celebrate the beginning of life (planting), Samhain to
celebrate death (harvest). This continuing circle is very much part of the
Celtic way of viewing things. In Wiccan tradition this Sabbat is to
celebrate the death of the Oak King, and is followed with six weeks of
mourning by the Goddess.

Samhain has been, at least for the modern neo-pagan, the Celtic New Year.
However there are at least two writers that dispute this, Pliny the Elder,
and the Athenian. Both of these writers claim that the Celts began their New
Year in July-Midsummer to Midsummer, the highest point of the Sun (King,
page 106). Modern Neo-pagan writers should note. If one really thinks about
it, it would make sense to start and end the year on the longest day.

The Third Harvest was a time to collect the last sheaves of wheat from the
fields, pick the last apple from the tree. In Celtic cultures it was the
custom to have all the crops in by October 30. After that all the crops in
the field, fruit on the tress, became property of the fairies. It was
considered to be taboo to do so after, bring the wrath of the fairies upon
you, and the possibility of a lifetime of bad luck. One of Samhain's many
traditions is to leave a bit of food by your door to feed the little folk,
and in some parts of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland this tradition is still
observed (McCoy, page 38-39).

All Hollows Eve (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1) and the Day of the
Dead (November 2) was the Catholic Church's answer to Samhain. As with many
of the other pagan holidays, the Church, when confronted with a pagan ritual
it could not abolish, adopted it. Approximately in the 9th century the Abbot
of Cluny- in France established Michaelmas. A day to celebrate the Saint
Michael. This day was later changed to Hollowmas in the 10th century, soon
to be followed by All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead. The Hollowmas was
a day to celebrate the dead; All Saints Day called for sinners and saints to
be restored to heaven; with the Day of the Dead, the dead, redeemed or
otherwise, were celebrated. This change of the names but not the holiday
allowed the pagans to accept the holidays as Christian ones. The pagans
already believed this to be a time when the dead and the living were allowed
to both dwell in the same place. When the veil separating the two
dimensions was at it's weakest. On All Souls Day many would make cakes to
feed the dead (some traditions never die, pardon the pun), as demonstrated
by the following song, the predecessor to trick or treat.

Soul! Soul! For a soul cake!

I pray you, good missus, a soul cake!

An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,

Or any good thing to make us merry.

One for Peter, two for Paul,

Three for Them who made us all.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan.

Give us good alms, and we'll be gone.

Halloween, the Witches New Year, the personal favorite of many modern
pagans, including this author, first was and always will be a Christian
creation, as was mentioned in the previous paragraph. Halloween, for those
who celebrate, have taken it back from the Christians and have returned it
to it's rightful place, that being one of the most celebrated of pagan
holidays. McCoy states that Halloween use of masks is a practice that begin
in the Burning Times, claiming that Witches used masks not to be identified
when traveling at night. I dispute this,

  1. Without going into a treatise on the Burning Times, witches rarely
    worked in covens, thus having no reason to disguise themselves from others.

  2. The use of masks is very old. Given the fact that many pagan cultures
    believed this to be a day when the dead were able to cross over, many wore
    masks to disguise themselves and frighten away evil spirits. One of the
    other carryovers from both the Christian and pagan influences, the use of
    the carved pumpkin, like the masks, was design to confuse and frighten
    away evil spirits.

However you choose to celebrate Samhain, or whatever name you wish to call
it, it is a fun day. A day to become something other then what you are, to
become closer with the spirits, and to celebrate the passing of your


As was discussed Samhain is a when the Spirit world is at it's closest to
our world. One of the many ways to honor this fact is:

  1. to leave and offering by your back door.
  2. Leave and empty place setting for a departed loved one and your dinner

As was stated earlier, Samhain is one the favored of all the Sabbats by
pagans, and non-pagans alike, and as such should be celebrated with others.
The following ritual is designed with that in mind, with very liberal
borrowings from Starhawk and McCoy.

The following items will be needed:

  1. One white candle

  2. One black candle

  3. Chalice (wine if appropriate)

  4. Cakes (enough for all participants)

  5. A list of those whom you wish to honor. Each person involved would have
    their own list, to be shared at the proper time.

  6. Four pumpkins to be used to make the four corners.

First purify and cast your circle according each particular tradition. Then
invoke the God and Goddess. Begin ceremony.

LEADER: (Enters the circle from the East, lighting the black candle.) Merry
Meet and Welcome. The Circle is open, yet unbroken. This is a time that is
not a time, in a place that is not a place, on a day that is not a day. We
stand at the gate between the living and the dead on this night when the
veil between the two worlds is the thinnest. We are here to witness the
death of the Holly King, the waning Sun God, the lover and husband of the
Crone Goddess. We, the (insert name here), welcome the Holly Lord

ALL: We welcome him. Lead us, Lord.

HOLLY KING: Follow me, I am here. (Group follows him in)

LEADER: Be our Guide

HOLLY KING: I am the Guide, the Way is open.

ALL: Be our Guide.

HOLLY KING: I am the Guide, the Way is clear.

ALL: Be our Guide.

HOLLY KING: I am the Guide, Death is no barrier.

ALL: Be our Guide.

(Pass cakes and wine.)

HOLLY KING: Follow me, for time is near. (Passes Chalice with wine. At this
time, each person, or those who want to, can read their own passage of

HOLLY KING: What is remembered, lives.

ALL: What is remembered, lives.

HOLLY KING: What is forgotten, dies.

ALL: What is forgotten, dies.

HOLLY KING: What is remembered, lives.

ALL: We remember.

HOLLY KING: Death is a truth as is life, and just as life cannot last
forever, neither can death. You shall see me again, reborn, gaining in
strength and vibrancy. When it seems that the darkest has come, as the
Yuletide fades, under the stars, when it is my time again, you shall see me
born. Through me, all passes out of life. (Holly King extinguishes black

CRONE: (Enters, lights white candle) But through me, all may be born again.
The Holly King has shown me the way. Now, on this night of Samhain, at this
place and time between the veils.

ALL: Everything passes, changes.

CRONE: Seed becomes fruit.

ALL: Fruit becomes seed.

CRONE: In birth, we die.

ALL: On death, we feed.

CRONE: For my womb is the cauldron of rebirth. (Passes cakes)

ALL: In us, the circle is ever turning.

(Turn to our neighbors and say, "Blessed be.")

CRONE: Take me as yours, for winter is my time. We thank you, blessed
spirits and ancestors, for joining us. You shall not be forgotten any time
soon. (Extinguishes candle)

ALL: So do we accept you. So Mote it Be!

LEADER: The circle is closed.

Ceremony is over. All leave to the west.



Makes about 3 dozen, dough must be chilled several hours to overnight.

1/2 c veg. oil

4 sq unsweetened chocolate (4 oz) melted

2 cups granulated sugar

4 eggs

2 tsp vanilla

2 cups pastry flour (not hard, sifted or cake flour)

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup confectioner's sugar

Mix oil, chocolate, and granulated sugar. Blend in one egg at a time until
well mixed. Add vanilla. Measure flour by dipping method or by sifting. Stir
flour, baking powder, and salt into oil mixture. Chill several hours to
overnight. Heat oven to 350 degree F [175 degree C]. Roll about a tablespoon
of dough into a ball (yes, it's messy). Drop balls into confectioner's sugar
& roll around until coated. Place about 2 inches apart on greased baking
sheet. Bake 10-12 min. They will be a little soft but should not be mushy.
Edges should be firm.

HOT APPLE CIDER 1 1/2 gallons Apple Cider

2 whole cinnamon sticks

5 cloves

1 large orange, sliced thin with peel left on

1/2 lemon, sliced thin with peel left on

1/2 cup sugar

Directions: In large pot, combine cider, cinnamon sticks, cloves, orange and
lemon slices, and sugar to taste. Serve hot.

American Traditional Pumpkin Pie

3 eggs 1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

2 cups pumpkin mush*

2 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

1/2 tsp. cloves

1/2 tsp. salt

1- 12oz can evaporated milk

1 pie shell

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large non-metal bowl combine sugars and
eggs. Add in the pumpkin mush, the spices, salt, and evaporated milk. Pour
the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 10 minutes, and then reduce heat to
350 and bake for another 50 minutes, or until pie sets. Make 6-8 servings.

*Pumpkin mush: cut a medium pumpkin in half. Prick the skin several times
with a fork, and place on a cookie sheet, cut-side up. Bake for 50 minutes
or until very soft when poked with a fork. Let the pumpkin cool, then scoop
out the seeds with a spoon. Scoop out the pumpkin meat, and throw away the
skin. Mash the pumpkin meat with a potato masher or puree in a blender/food
processor. Makes about 4 cups.

Work Cited

  • Bord, Janet & Colin, Earth Rites, Fertility Practices in Pre-Industrial
    Britain, Granada, London, 1982.

  • Carr-Gomm, Philip The Elements of the Druid Tradition Element Books,
    Rockport, MA 1998

  • Danaher, Kevin, The Year in Ireland, The Mercier Press, Cork, 1972.

  • Henes, Donna, Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles &
    Celebrations, A Pedigree Book. NY, NY 1996

  • Hole, Christina, Witchcraft in England, Rowman & Littlefield, Totowa NJ,

  • Holleston, T.W., Celtic Mythology: History, Legends and Deities, NewCastle
    Publishing, Van Nuys, CA 1997

  • MacCana, Proinsias, Celtic Mythology, The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd.,
    London, 1970.

  • MacCulloch, J.A. Religion of the Ancient Celts, Folcroft Library Editions,
    London, 1977.

  • Matthews, John, The Druid Source Book: Complied and Edited by John Matthews, A Blanford Book, London, England, 1997

  • Matthews, John and Caitlin Matthews, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom,
    Element Books Rockport, MA 1994

  • McCoy, Edain, The Sabbats: A New Approach to Living the Old Ways, Llewellyn
    Publications, St. Paul, MN 1998

  • Nichols, Ross, The Book of Druidry, Harper-Collins, London, England 1992

  • Powell, T.G.E. The Celts, Thames & Hudson, New York, 1980.

  • Sharkey, John, Celtic Mysteries, the Ancient Religion, Thames & Hudson, New
    York, 1979.

  • Squire, Charles, Celtic Myth, Legend, Poetry, and Romance, Newcastle
    Publishing Co., Van Nuys, CA, 1975.

  • Stewart, R.J. Celtic Myths, Celtic Legends, Blanford Books, London, England, 1997

  • Williamson, John, The Oak King, The Holly King, and the Unicorn, Harper &
    Row, New York, 1986.

  • Wood-Martin, W.G., Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, Kennikat Press,
    Port Washington, NY, 1902.

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