Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter, the beginning of the ‘darker-half’ of the year. In the northern hemisphere, it is held on 1 November, but with celebrations beginning on the evening of 31 October.
Samhain was the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter). Our planet’s axis of rotation is tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees relative to our orbital plane, which means that for us in the Northern Hemisphere we are oriented away from the sun, the sun’s rays are less direct, and that part of Earth cools. It’s winter.
At Samhain the division between this world and the other world was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through. It is a time when the family’s ancestors are honoured and invited home, whilst harmful spirits were warded off.
Traditionally people wear costumes and masks to disguise themselves. Bonfires and food play a large part in the festivities. Food is prepared for the living and the dead, food for the ancestors who are in no position it eat it, is sometimes ritually shared with the less well off.
Christianity incorporated this originally pagan tradition honouring of the dead into the Christian calendar with All Saints (All Hallows) on November 1st, followed by All Souls on November 2nd. The wearing of costumes and masks to ward off harmful spirits survived as Halloween customs.
The Hindu Diwali (Divali, Deepavali) Festival known as the Festival of Lights occurs about the same time as Samhain. Diwali marks the Hindu New Year just as Samhain marks the Celtic New Year, could it be that Diwali and Samhain have a common root in antiquity?
Fire is an important element in Samhain. The decline in the strength of the sun at this time of year was a source of anxiety for early beings and the lighting of the Winter Fires symbolised our ancestors attempt to assist the sun on its journey across the skies. Fire is the earthly counterpart of the sun and is a powerful and appropriate symbol to express our human helplessness in the face of the overwhelming sense of the decay of nature as the winter sets in.