Samhain: Celebrating the Arrival of Winter in Wicca

by JoHarrington

Samhain is a time of Otherworldly incursions. It's between the end of the light and the beginning of the darkness; and it's been popularized as Halloween.

All hail the start of winter! We're into the dark half of the year now; and there's a rebel yell to be sounded in the face of the cold.

So we light up our houses and carry flames through the streets. We carve out our pumpkin heads; and give food to all the ghoulish creatures that knock. All hospitality and community here, forged in the heat of the bonfires.

Our whole world is dying or sinking into hibernation. So much dreariness ahead, but we'll meet that undaunted. You can't see a rainbow without a little rain.

What is the Wiccan Samhain?

An introduction to one of the Eight Sabbats in the Wiccan Wheel of the Year.

Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) is the beginning of winter.  It occurs precisely at the mid-point between Autumn Equinox (aka Mabon) and Winter Solstice (aka Yule).

In short, it's the beginning of winter.

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, this should move around, just as the dates of those festivals change.  But it never does. 

As soon as the switch from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian, we've celebrated it on October 31st.  Previously it was November 11th.  There is a school of thought which says that the entire of November should be considered in terms of Samhain.

But the weight of public and folkloric pressure is too great.  October 31st it is, because that's when the rest of society is celebrating Halloween.  It's a word contracted from Hallowe'en, or the eve of All Hallows Day.

All Soul's Day follows swiftly on; then, in Britain at least, Bonfire Night lights up the darkness.  That's a word which originally had an extra 'e' - bone fire.  It burnt the remnants of the pre-winter slaughter.

So one week explodes with up to four festivals, all interlinked, all falling slap bang on top of the others.  It is one of the religious rites which refuses to go away and erupts with color, lights, partying and community every year.  Even if it's just the 'secular' participation in Halloween events.

Halloween House Lights in the USA

Party Rock Anthem and Gangnam Style get the light treatment during Samhain for these homes.

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Samhain as a Time of Great Anxiety

We're hurtling headlong into winter. Are you prepared for that? Is your family prepared for that?

Yesterday, in Britain, it was gloomy and dark all day long.  For the first time, I had to switch on the lights just to go about my morning ablutions. That fact did not pass unnoticed.

The British love to talk about the weather, but it stepped up a pace.  Just about everyone I met, friend, family or colleague, commented with a grimace how dark it had gone.  There was nothing too abnormal nor outrageous about the weather.  It was downright average for this time of year in my country.

But it was the first time that those rising for school or 9-5 office jobs had needed the light on in the morning. That was the important factor here.  It denoted winter and seemingly endless months of cold and darkness.

It's not just vague biting of lips over the weather.  The onset of dreariness can kick start negative emotions in other ways.  Everything ahead just feels like so much hard work and expense - buying presents for the Midwinter festivals; scraping ice off your car windows in the morning; not being able to go outside without bulking out in warm clothes and boots. 

At times it can feel like a mass descent into pathetic fallacy.  The day darkens, foliage shrivels and dies, all grows colder, so our psyche goes with it.  Minor problems become major issues; being slightly put out escalates into a personal war; and feeling a bit down becomes the gateway to actual depression.

These are 21st century people, Tweeting and Facebooking their anxiety in bright, digital worlds.  Imagine that same emotion played out before artificial lighting and supermarkets. 

Imagine if the only thing between you and starvation are the stores you have collected in the last harvest.  Imagine that you may well freeze to death, if you haven't adequately seen to your home and your winter clothing; nor gathered enough fuel for weeks of fires.

Then know that all that's waiting on the other end relies upon your provision now.  Did you retain the right breeding cattle?  Did you adequately preserve next year's crop seeds?  If not, you might survive the winter only to perish in the spring.

But the human spirit is great, isn't it?  We are so utterly perverse in our defiance of everything, elements be damned!  We rage against the dying of the light!

Books about Samhain and Halloween

Buy these titles to learn more about this Wiccan Sabbat; and to uncover some of the uncanny facts about the festival.
The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Cel...Celebrating the Seasons of Life: Samh...Pagan Writers Presents Samhain

Anthony Hopkins reads Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night'

It's a poem that Thomas wrote about and for his dying father. But it equally applies to the ending of the summer light.

Halloween: Humanity Refuses to Go Gentle into that Good Night

"I'm crying out in fury to the Gods of Fate, come on and get me if you can!"

Forget all that you think you know about Halloween and Samhain.  Ignore for a moment the ghosts, ghouls and lanterns.  Look at it all from the point of view of our ancestors.  Then you can see what they did and what we do still.

Whatever is in the store-room now represents our very survival.  Not a bit of it should be lost or shared.  So we hold a feast.  We open the door to any who knock and we hand over cakes, fruit, all of those precious provisions.

We scream our defiance to the Gods of Fate!  We are so well fed and so well stocked, that we can afford to give it away!  Even now, right on the very eve of the darkness, we can give away our food.

And, incidentally, we've also reassured ourselves that our neighbors will share their stocks with us, should we run short.

Moreover, we need that fuel!  There is no way of knowing how long and how bitter those winter months will be.  Without the heat, we will freeze to death.  We all know what happened to The Little Matchgirl, when she ran out of flames to warm herself.

So here, facing down the chill winds, we decide to devote ourselves to the biggest, best fires that we can possibly construct.  Vast mounds of wood chopped and stacked.  Take that, fear of exposure and ice!  We have enough fuel to spare!

So much of what we do, collectively, as a society, during this festival is about defying winter and the Lords of Misrule.  It's us saying, 'I'm anxious.  I'm so anxious that I could cry about it!  But I will challenge nature itself to defeat me.  I will stare the causes of my anxiety in the face and I will laugh and feast and party!  Bring. It. On.'

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Death During the Blood Month

There is a feeling and a stench of death about this time of year. Particularly so in the old days, when livestock couldn't all be sustained throughout the winter months.

All around us, leaves are falling from trees and turning into mush on the ground.  So beautiful in their blaze of reds, golds, oranges and deep brown, before they cascade onto the muddied soil.  It can feel like a metaphor for all.

But back in our agricultural past, November was what the Norse called the 'blood month'. It was when the majority of our sheep, cattle, pigs and goats were killed.  Only small breeding stocks were retained, in order to replenish the herds in springtime. 

In this last, great burst of activity, communities would pull together to butcher the animals and prepare the meat and skins for winter.  Smoking or salting the former.  Tanning, preserving and sewing the latter.

There may have been more.  Human sacrifice to appease elemental Gods, as protection for all in the darkness.  But these are mere hints from folklore and no definitive historical record exists.  Instinct tells me it's true, but the academic evidence is silent.

In Ireland and Scotland, there was a widespread wisdom that crops left unharvested at Samhain had now spoiled. They belonged to the Púca, a goblin type creature, which would curse the fields, leaving all within it inedible.  

The same creature is called Pwka in Wales and Bucca in Cornwall. 

Given the sheer amount of pests, disease and erosion which can assault late crops, this might well have basis in health and safety too.  Whether Pwka or the wheat bulb fly eggs, nature's bounty becomes particularly poisonous to humans if harvested too late.

It can feel like all is death and the world has turned against us. 

The Veil is Thin at Samhain

All kinds of Otherworldly beings could be coming back; our ancestors and dead relatives may be among them.

All over the world, there's talk of uncanniness at this time.  Whether it's Scandinavians fretting about trolls, or the Gaels warding against fairies and witches, or my own Welsh running around chasing away invisible and tail-less black sows, something isn't quite normal.

Again the academic evidence is quiet on precisely what preceded the Christian All Hallows at Samhain. 

In fact, there might even be nothing beyond a Christian festival commemorating their own martyrs, savaged to death in the Coliseums of Pagan Roman emperors.

But the feasting happened.  Historically, we can find feasting and references to Otherworldly beings all over the place.  Was this a time of propitiating the pre-Christian pantheons?  Divine help for the winter months?  We'll never know.

Yet the traditions remain.  The certain knowledge that the Lords of Mischief and Misrule are abroad, aided and abetted by all manner of dark creatures, is firmly lodged in the collective psyche.

If nature isn't for us, then it must be against us.  The poison crops and withered hedgerows are testimony to that.  The danger in the darkness is real.  So how do human beings, defiant in the face of it, react?

We embrace it and make it tangible; then we make it fun.

It comes out in Halloween costumes, masks and grinning lanterns.  There's the symbolic portion of Trick and Treating here.  The forces of darkness knock our doors to take their portion.  They receive a tribute from our stores and leave the rest for our survival.  Or we can refuse and take our chances with the 'trick'.

Halloween Costumes on Wizzley

I've spent the past few weeks collecting all of these together and writing about them. The reason wasn't lost on my Pagan friends.
There are some hauntingly good looks for your festive party this year. Grab yourself a spooky ghost outfit for Halloween; and practice those spine-chilling wails.
Grinning pumpkin heads are all well and good; until one turns its head to follow you across the room. Have fun with your own pumpkin costume this Halloween!
Thunder crashes and lightning strikes - a hit! A creepy laboratory filled with crackling and light! But wait... What a cutie Dr Frankenstein's little monster is this time!
Clickity-clack, what's that? Something skeletal this way comes! Looking for something bone-shakingly spooky for Halloween? Check out the rattle-bones outfits here.

Charlie Says Go: What is Samhain?

American witch Charlie describes Samhain for the benefit of non-Pagan friends.

How Witches Celebrate Samhain

We do a whole lot of what everyone else is doing for Halloween, plus honoring our ancestors.

This time of year is when friends, who are fully aware that I'm Pagan, suddenly become intensely interested in what I'm doing over here.

So how do witches celebrate Samhain on October 31st?   The answer is generally that we don't. 

It's really difficult to get into ritual mode, when the door is knocking every thirty seconds for a Trick and Treater; and your 'phone is beeping with 'Happy Samhain' texts; and people are just happening to call around to have a good nosy.

What we tend to do on that night is what everyone else is doing.  But this is great!  Because Samhain is all about community; and said community are performing most of the ritualistic things that we'd be aping anyway!

I might be slightly facetious there.  Some Wiccans do begin their ceremonies after everyone else has gone to bed.  But others wait until the next day, or the nearest weekend.  Our kids shouldn't have to miss out on the parties after all, and neither should we.

Mostly what we're looking at - beyond what everyone else is doing and every media outlet is talking about - is respecting our ancestors. 

Please note, this is categorically not summoning them.  It's not a seance nor any of the rest. We are not necromancers.

It's inviting the dead to enter our homes and partake of our feast.  For this reason, extra plates will be set out and no living human will touch the food upon it. It's remembering our dead, recalling stories to share and letting them simply be here with us.

You can catch a glimpse of this, if you check out any social media channel belonging to a Wiccan at Samhain.  I bet you a stick of candy that you'll read at least one mention of an ancestor that day.

Wiccan funerals are all about honoring the dead, but not in a way that assumes that they've gone. In fact, a place is set there for them.
Enter a world where the true life stories read like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. This is the saga of your own family's roots.

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Samhain and Me

All Sabbats are important, but there's something extra about this one which I really love. It's like the world and I come into step, in a way I can't adequately explain.

I always seem to greet Samhain with a great burst of energy.  Everyone else has that at Beltane - and, to be fair, I do too - but there are precedents here. 

I've tended to meet people who've changed my life, or seen things, or gone places which have turned out to be highly significant later.  Perhaps it's all psychological, but I do look forward to Samhain in gleeful anticipation.  I don't know what might be awaiting me!

One of the best Samhain festivals I ever experienced came about by accident.  A friend and I were visiting the Black Mountains, which is probably my favorite place on Earth.  Ritual performed, we drove down the other side and nipped into Hay-on-Wye for a drink.

There were people everywhere!  Such crowds that stopping was hardly an option.  They were all walking in the same direction so, intrigued, my friend and I walked with them.  The queue - several bodies abreast - snaked in a great stream across two fields.  Then we breasted a toll-gate and finally gained an inkling of what was ahead.

It was a fire festival, the like of which I've never seen before or since.  Fire jugglers aplenty, but there were also trained professionals hula-hooping with flames licking their waists.  There was fire art!  Huge frameworks set alight, which only revealed their images as the flames whipped around them.

Fireworks and a bonfire came as standard, but this display was mesmerizing.  Every Samhain I think of it; and I want to go back.

I like to be out and about at Samhain.  I always leave it to the last minute to work out where.  Last year, it was spent on a beach in Prestatyn.  That wasn't planned either.

As for its place in the whole scheme of things, Samhain for me stands alone.  I've done all of my planning, working and harvesting.  By Yule, I'll be lost in contemplation.  For now, I just want to live in the present.  I've done all that I can.  The future belongs to itself.

Right now, it's all about compassion for myself; not feeding the anxiety of the season with extra stress; and partying until it's time to sit back down again.

Happy new year.

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Updated: 10/25/2012, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 11/07/2012

I'm glad that you thought so! And I hope that you had a very wonderful Samhain. :)

Mira on 11/07/2012

Wow, very interesting points in your article. I really liked the idea of strengthening community during Halloween/Samhain, and defying the winter because we made provisions, and can afford to even make big fires . . . Great thoughts!!

JoHarrington on 10/26/2012

Happy New Year to you too; and I hope that your dumb supper goes very well.

koffeeklatchgals on 10/26/2012

Wonderful article. I was mesmerized. I also like the video by Charlie. The dumb supper sounds like something I would be interested in trying. Happy New Year to you.

JoHarrington on 10/25/2012

You're welcome and happy new year to you too! xxx

Kate on 10/25/2012

Another excellent Wicca article. Thank you and happy new year xxx

JoHarrington on 10/24/2012

I've been doing it for the last twenty years or so. I once had someone try to explain that, when I put it outside later, it's probably a fox or something that eats the food. I smiled. He was so earnest. Bless.

Ragtimelil on 10/24/2012

Love it. I don't do as much, but for years I've set out an extra plate of food. It's a quiet time for me.

JoHarrington on 10/24/2012

I'm glad that you approved. <3 Blessed be, Sionnach!

Sionnach Dhu on 10/24/2012

Excellent article! Thanks for writing & posting it.

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