Samhain is a fascinating festival, regarded as a pagan precursor to modern Halloween. Regardless of your personal belief system, it can be interesting to form a deeper understanding of the roots of modern ‘holidays’, and the ways in which people in times past related to the passing of the seasons and changes in the natural world. Learning about Samhain may help gardeners reach a deeper understanding of the natural world and their own place within it.
The ancient Celtic peoples, like so many other groups throughout history, are believed to have had lives and religions very much ties to the passing seasons. As gardeners, we form closer links to the seasons ourselves, and can begin to understand perhaps, a little more clearly, how our ancestors would have felt, and how intrinsic natural patterns are to plant growth and food production.
Samhain – The Origin of Many Halloween Traditions
For the Celts, whose beliefs, traditions and stories have been filtered down to us through much later writers, Samhain was one of the four main ‘hinges’ of the year – four main periods of feasting and festivity. The two most important of these Celtic festivals are believed to have been Bealtaine/ Beltane, (May Day) and Samhain, from sunset on the 31st October to sunset on the 1st November.
At Bealtaine/ Beltane, cattle were driven out to summer pastures, and Samhain marked their return. These important times were thought to have their origins in a time when Celts were largely pastoral people, dependent on their herds. Later traditions, however, link these crucial festivals to the gardening or farming year.
Samhain is a time when stock is taken of the crops stored for winter, and many traditions originated in propitiating the gods or spirits of nature (which became the fairies, aos-si, or sidhe), to ensure a safe winter, and obtain a good harvest in the coming year.
Samhain is sometimes believed to have been the Celtic New Year, and while this is not known, there are many rites of cleansing and ‘new beginnings’ which may hint that this was seen as some kind of fresh start – a time to look back on the past and the departed, and to look forward to what was still to come. Saining, or cleansing of the home, and lighting bonfires are two common traditions, and divination, either serious or in light-hearted games, also harkens back to earlier beliefs and traditions.
Samhain is often said to the the origin of many secular Halloween traditions still practiced today, and the Celtic origins of the festival are also the foundation more many contemporary pagan practices.
Ways To Celebrate Samhain or Halloween in Your Garden
Drawing on the traditions of diverse groups over the centuries, there are plenty of ways to harken back to the roots of the festival in your home and garden. For example, you might:
Light a Bonfire to Stave off the Darkness of Winter
To stave off the darkness of winter, and to mimic the sun, bonfires were a traditional Samhain tradition. These were often lit on hilltops, and were associated with cleaning rituals. Torches were carried around homes and fields to protect them, and you might do this in your own garden.
Carve Lanterns To Warn Off Spirits
Traditionally, turnips rather than pumpkins were often carved, and carried or placed as a form of protection during this time of the year, when traditionally, the vein between the worlds was said to thin. Lanterns may also have been viewed as a way of carrying the cleansing fire.
From at least the 16th Century, mumming or guising saw people fo from door to door carrying their lanterns, and often in costumes or masks. Usually, songs or poems would be recited in return for food. This may represent early forms of the festival, during which people imitated nature spirits to receive offerings on their behalf.
Another way to honour the fairies or nature spirits it to leave offerings outside your door. Sometimes, to honour those who have died, a west facing door or window is left open, a seat at the table or beside the fire prepared, and a candle or lantern lit to welcome them. Sometimes, food and drink may be left outside, or placed at table.
Many rituals were intended to divine the future of those who had gathered. For example, apples were often used, and in Celtic mythology, were strongly associated with the Otherworld and immortality. Hazelnuts were also common divination tools, and were associated with divine wisdom.
In one ritual, apples were peeled in one long strip and tossed over the shoulder, and the shape it formed was said to be the letter of the person’s future spouse’s first name.
In another ritual, a couple would throw two nuts into a fire. If they burned quietly, this was said to foretell a good match and a happy marriage. But if they crackled and hissed, this was not seen as a good sign.
Another Scottish tradition involved a single woman pulling kale out of the ground after dark with her eyes shut. The stalk’s strength and straightness would determine her future partner’s height and figure. The soil on the stalk was said to foretell how wealthy they would be.
A number of traditions involve using crops or natural items to predict the future at this time of the year.
While many of us may no longer have strong links to the beliefs of pagan times, an appreciation for and understanding of seasonal rituals can help us to form a stronger link to nature and its turning cycles in our gardens. We can see that the end of the harvest period and the start of winter is just the beginning of a new cycle of regeneration and growth. And can regain a sense of connection to and appreciation for nature’s cycles and the changing seasons.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.