Samhain, Death, and Dying

Samhain (pronounced sow-win) is the Celtic festival celebrating the end of the harvest season. Literally translated, the word means “summer’s end”. We associate Samhain with modern Halloween, although the festival is much older. Many modern Halloween customs, however, do spring from pagan Samhain practices. 

Back in my Christian days I was extremely anti-Halloween. I remember that once I wrote an essay denouncing Halloween for being a holiday of devil worship built upon pagan roots. Nevermind that Christmas and Easter are also rooted in pagan practices. I can only say that my strong aversion to Halloween was because of Christian indoctrination and not understanding what Samhain represents. 

I find it fascinating that most cultures have similar celebrations and that those celebrations are generally clustered around the same time on the calendar. Samhain comes shortly after the Jewish festival Sukkot, and is on the same day as the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. Yes, I said they are the same day. Celtic days, like Jewish days, begin and end at sunset. If you notice on most calendars you will see a note that says “Jewish holidays begin at sunset on the evening prior to the date listed.” The same is true with Celtic holidays. Samhain begins at sunset on October 31 and runs until sunset on November 1. Our calendars list Halloween as October 31 because our days begin at midnight. 

Samhain is not an evil holiday. It is not about worshipping satan and all that stuff. The vast majority of people who celebrate Samhain do not even believe in the Chrsitian Satan or even in the concept of a similar being. Like Sukkot and Dia de los Muertos, Samhain is about remembering, honoring, and connecting with those who came before us. 

Samhain represents death, and that frightens a lot of people. Our society is afraid of death and dying. We do everything we can to postpone death for as long as possible. For some, the ability to live forever would be a welcome option. But death is a natural part of life. We all will die at some point. We shouldn’t fear death. We should aim to die well. Samhain ends the warm growing half of the year. It is the demarcation line between light and dark, life and death. Samhain is a transition to the dark half of the year. What we have not harvested returns to earth. It is a cycle. It is organic. 

If you can, make an ancestor altar. Light candles, add photographs or a list of names, and add little gifts and treats of things that your ancestors liked. If you can’t make an altar, take time to explore and deepen your knowledge of your family history. Pick one ancestor or loved one whom you would like to remember and light a candle in his or her honor. These are just a few of many ways you can celebrate Samhain if you don’t already have it as part of your traditions. And, if you do, feel free to share your favorite Samhain customs below.

 

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