So, you are wondering how to pronounce Samhain, the Celtic word for Halloween…
This post explores the roots of modern Halloween and the Celtic holiday known as Samhain (said sow-when).
This time is also known as the time of the thin veil. Read on to learn more about the end of summer and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
This post contains affiliate links based on my personal experience with products that support a seasonal lifestyle. As an amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I hope you find them useful.
Modern Archeology for an Ancient Celebration
The Hill of Ward [In the Boyne Valley of Ireland] was one of the main spiritual centers for the ancient Celts, and Samhain was first celebrated at the same time of year millennia ago. New archaeological work is looking closely at the history of the Hill of Ward, which until recently had been overlooked in Ireland’s archaeologically rich Boyne Valley. Researchers are hoping to discover how its use and value evolved over the centuries—along with the traditional rites and celebrations that eventually led to the modern festival of Halloween. ~ Archeology.org
Halloween is a modern holiday with deep roots going back to ancient, pre-Christian times in the British Isles. The days that mark the mid-point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice were known as the feast of Samhain. It marked the end of the summer and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
Ancient Celts celebrated this change in season with bonfires, costuming, and storytelling. It is one of 8 Celtic Feast Days, each marking the changing of the seasons.
They believed that at this time spirits walked the earth as the door between the worlds of the seen and unseen was open.
During seasonal celebrations participants dressed in animal costumes and made their faces up to look like deceased relatives. Much as today, it was a time of great mischief. To learn more, read this history from National Geographic.
Celtic Holiday Samhain: What are Celtic Feast Days?
There are/were eight Celtic feast days. They are marked by the Sun’s relationship to the Earth in a manner that caused the seasons to shift. They are the four Quarter Days of Solstice and Equinox. Then, there are four Cross-Quarter Days (mid-way between solstice and equinox).
These eight feast days marked the changing seasons in the British Isles: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. The Cross-Quarter Days were potent times of celebration and ritual as well. Most of them carry over into modern holidays. I find these days to be central to my seasonal life.
- Imbolc – Groundhogs Day
- Beltane – May Day
- Lughnasadh – The first harvest, the universal time of vacation and sunbathing
- Samhain – Halloween
The Quater Days include:
- The Winter Solstice, associated today with all the December holidays.
- The Spring (Vernal) Equinox, associated today with Easter and Chanukkah.
- The Summer Solstice, most closely linked to The Fourth of July in the US.
- The Fall (Autumnal) Equinox, when we go back-to-school and back-to-work.
Respecting the Way of the Ancients
I consider myself a part of the Irish Diaspora.
Every time I write that sentence I promise myself I’m going to write a more in-depth explanation of the term. For now, let’s look at Wikipedia’s definition:
The Irish diaspora (Irish: Diaspóra na nGael) refers to ethnic Irish people and their descendants who live outside the island of Ireland. ~ Wiki
As I lean into my Irish roots, I become less tolerant of the cultural appropriation of the seasonal feast days where people offer rootless expressions of some glossed-over fairyland.
Retrieving the holidays of the indigenous people of the British Isles, and especially Ireland, is the work of soul healing. It is sacred, profound, and holy.
As you explore these seasonal holidays through the resources offered on this website, I encourage you to look to your own family history and genetics. Find the people whose culture resonates with the roots of your soul, and go deep. As you build a personal seasonal practice that incorporates the ways of the ancients you heal and become a healer.
I believe this healing goes back through your ancestors as much as it reaches forward through generations yet unborn. Please share your experiences in the comments section below.
Please don’t paint your fingernails black and light a candle and call what you are doing a Celtic practice. That’s a surface experience that does more harm than good. It objectifies the ephemeral for entertainment.
Read, find a teacher, create sacred spaces, and practice, practice, practice.
The Thin Veil Between Worlds at the Feast of Samhain
Riverbanks, graveyards, ancient trees, desert canyons. Such are places where I have felt the slipstream of time, the pulse of the earth, the clear still sound of my whispering soul.
Do you know such places?
These thin spaces are sometimes remote, often mundane. I have felt such intimations standing by my sleeping child’s bedside, holding my husband’s hand in the middle of the night, listening to the tears track down the face of a dear friend. I have known them at the fireside while camping with my family as a child. The first memorable experience of a thin space is during the celebration of Catholic Mass as a very young child.
Mid-Autumn also holds this experience for me. Long nights and the slant-light of short days evoke a kind of somnolence. It’s no wonder cultures around the world celebrate the dead this time of year. They seem to be so very close at hand.
The Thin Spaces
“[Thin places] are locals where the distance between heaven and earth collapse and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.” Eric Weiner, NYT
I try to allow these thin spaces to emerge on my farm, and use these spots of micro-wilderness to hold me when I am confused, hurt, miss my Dad or my adult children. Personally sacred, I protect these spaces and consecrate them with my regular visits.
The end of October, Halloween, and mid-autumn are said to be a time where these thin spaces become even more so…more permeable, easily felt, accessible. In folklore and myth, we hear ghost stories and of time travel.
During these experiences, it is worth reflecting on the phrase as without, so within…as above, so below. To think of the dichotomies healed. the ways that the kaleidoscope of life shifts to form a perfect image.
This time of year that the ancient Celts called Samhain is also a time when the internal veil is thin. Our hard minds are touched by the soft underbelly of the soul. Melancholy is close. The rawness of the human experience made fragile by the recognition that death keeps us all equal is palpable.
At its best, this is a time of year when we can dance with the mystery of our small place in the larger human story and feel ourselves revealed.
Other times and cultures that celebrate this time of the thin veil…
Halloween in modern America is an interesting conflagration of Christian and pre-Christian rituals. The word Halloween actually means the eve of the hallowed, and refers to it being the night before All Saints Day, All Hallow’s Eve. The word was first used by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in his poem, Halloween.
The Catholic Church, as it Christianized the British Isles and the lands of the Celts, moved its feast day celebrating martyrs from mid-May to November 1.
By this time the Gregorian Calendar helped people track the days of the year, and Samhain was celebrated on October 31. Prior to this universal calendar, indigenous people followed the stars and the seasons to mark time.
The ancient practices that marked Samhain moved into Halloween celebrations on October 31. These new Christian people then celebrated the Saints and martyrs on November 1 and all souls on November 2.
This very convoluted story about The Church moving their martyr’s feast day from May to November, and its links to the Roman feast day of the dead, called Lemuria is intriguing. You can read all about that here.
In this confusing story of people, place and time, we see a dogma placed over the nature-based practices of indigenous Europe as The Church gained power and influence. But the thin spaces remain and are celebrated the world over as the earth turns toward winter.
Dia de Los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead
Unlike Samhain and its dark undertones of rising dead and ghosts, the Mexicans celebrate their dead with festivals of joy in early November. It is a similar recognition of the thinness between the sense of space and self, but with a completely different cultural expression. The highlight of the celebration is elaborate picnics at the gravesites of relatives with seasonal foods specific to the holiday. You can read more here.
4 Ways to Celebrate Samhain and the Thin Spaces this Year
The Contemplative Nature Walk
This is a simple practice of centering in silence as you walk in the woods, considering a question or concern. Here’s an article I wrote on the practice for your reference.
- Select a safe place in nature to take a walk alone and in silence.
- Journal about a question or problem you are currently struggling with.
- Create a threshold for your walk. This does not have to be obvious, especially if you are in a public park. It can be a gateway, a stick you step over, a tree you pass, etc. This is a way to ritualize your walk.
- Walk slowly, allowing your question to be present but don’t hold on to it tightly in your mind.
- Notice your surroundings and look for symbolic ‘advice’ from nature.
- Cross back over your threshold and journal about the experience.
During the Halloween season, it might be nice to remember a lost loved one and feel for messages from them during your walk.
Create sacred circles with natural and found objects – I often use the energies of celestial and seasonal events to create a mandala using natural and found objects that symbolize the issues at hand. A mandala, an ancient symbol of wholeness, is created through concentric circles of symbols that reflect our current state of mind. To see examples, click here.
A Nature-Based Gratitude Practice
I learned this practice during my time at Naropa University, where I studied ecopsychology. This practice is one of Thanksgiving and insight based on time spent in communion with nature and her spirit(s). I love this practice and use it every time there is an issue haunting me that seeks release.
This is a detailed and time-intensive practice. You can find the full description at this link.
This practice came to me through a dear and heroic professor, now gone from this world. Suzanne Duarte left us with her life’s work seeking ecological restoration on this website. A lovely and generous legacy.
A Bonfire Alone or With Friends
Fires have been a part of seasonal celebrations this time of year for millennia. Science is studying the effect hearths and bonfires have on health and wellness indicators like blood pressure and brain function. Studies suggest the social evolution that happened at the fireside left its trace in our genetics. So, be like the ancestors and enjoy the fireside this Halloween.
Enjoy the Flavors of the Season
Autumn spice blends complement fall foods like pumpkins and apples. Made of the warming spices, enjoy them in both sweet and savory dishes.
Let’s create the fall kitchen this October and November by focusing on building a spice cabinet full of these aromatic flavors. Then, we’ll combine those flavors into spice blends, tea blends, and oh so much more!
Come Join the Party!
If you enjoy seeing life through the lens of the changing seasons, I invite you to stay connected. This is a community of activist-oriented gardeners, cooks, and nature lovers.
If you want a loving community to be a part of your seasonal life, please do anyone (or ALL!) of the following:
- Sign up for the newsletter and get my herbal teas and tisanes recipe book for FREE! Tea is always a welcome addition to any time in the kitchen.
- Join our FREE Facebook group where we’re always talking gardens and kitchens.
- Follow me on Instagram and watch the seasons unfold on my 5-acre homestead in Harpers Ferry, WV.
It is pronounced sow-when.