Samhain (pronounced: sow ain) is the name given to a festival which Celtic peoples in the areas which are now known as Ireland, Great Britain and France celebrated in late October and early November. The combination of Samhain celebrations with elements taken from other festivals appears to have given rise to the modern Halloween. Oidche Shamhna, a name derived from Samhain, is still the name of Halloween in Irish. Samhain is celebrated by various Wiccan and neopagan groups on October 31 today. It is a "quarter day"; that is, a day half-way between a solstice and an equinox.
The Samhain celebration marked the end of the harvest, it was considered to be a good time to slaughter animals because there was no longer any long grass for them to eat. The word "Samhain" appears in Irish literature from the 10th century onwards as an important date in the calendar, the time when fighting and trading were to stop and a good date for tribal leaders to gather their people together. The goings-on at those gatherings became a popular theme for Irish folktales.
The name Samhain means "summer's end". It marked the end of the "lighter half" of the year and the coming of the "darker half". It is believed to have been the Celtic New Year, which would mean that many people would be thinking about their future and might have tried to find out what the coming year would have in store for them by means of magic.
Bonfires played a large part in the celebration of Samhain, as they still do in the celebration of Halloween in the Republic of Ireland and in the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night in the United Kingdom today. On the night of Samhain people and their animals would pass between bonfires as part of a cleansing ritual and the bones of slaughtered animals would be thrown onto the flames.
There does not appear to be any truth in the persistent modern rumor that Samhain was the name of ancient Celtic death deity, however, Samhain appears to have been a festival of the dead on which people believed that ghosts returned to their old homes. It has been suggested that the modern Halloween practice of dressing up in costumes originated in a Samhain custom. People are said to have disguised themselves either to frighten away evil spirits or to fool ghosts into thinking that the costume wearers were ghosts too, so that they would be left alone.
Samhain and All Saints' Day
It is commonly held that Gregory III, who was pope between the years 731 and 741, fixed the date of All Saints' Day on November 1 to Christianize the Samhain festival of the dead. However, the Christian All Saints' Day appears to have been observed on November 1 in Britain since the 7th century and was officially celebrated on May 13 in the rest of Western Europe until the year 835.
Samhain celebrations today
For many Wiccans and neopagans today, Samhain is an important religious festival. There are many different neopagan religions and the way these different groups celebrate Samhain can vary greatly. It is not unusual for neopagans to hold Samhain parties on October 31 which are largely identical to other Halloween parties.
Neopagans in Australia, New Zealand and other Southern Hemisphere countries do not celebrate Samhain on October 31 because Samhain marks the end of summer and the coming of winter. Instead neopagans in those countries celebrate Beltane which marks the coming of spring.