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The cute side of Samhain
One of my childhood predilections was folklore. I pursued this interest as I grew older, along with mythology and history. The history of Halloween traditions has always been a big favorite of mine (along with Yule traditions - me & Tim Burton, eh?). Over the years, I've collected quite a bit of information on these traditions. This is an article I wrote for an online Interfaith magazine many years ago. What better time to...er... resurrect it?

So follow me below the orange fancy to learn more....

Halloween. The very word conjures up images of grinning pumpkins, costumes, bats, owls, ghosts.....and Witches. What do these symbols mean? What is Halloween all about? Why do we DO what we do on Halloween?

Samhain (pronounced sa-VEEN or SOW-in) dates to about the 5th century B.C.E.  It was originally called Trenae Samma and was the Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest. For three days the Celts feasted, danced and made merry, for this was the end of the year. Gradually, remembrance of those who had passed on during the previous twelve months came to be included. It seemed logical that, as one cycle ended and another began, those whom we had lost in the interim should be remembered.

Early man feared the unknown and death, and what lay beyond was the biggest unknown of all. Those who had experienced this transition came to be regarded as supernatural beings who could aid or hinder their living counterparts.  How then, to ensure their aid?  People reasoned that if they made these beings happy they'd be safe from their wrath. In Lithuania, the last of the Celtic kingdoms to become Christianized, they did this by sacrificing animals to their God of the Dead, Zimiennik. If he accepted the sacrifice he would keep the vengeful spirits at bay. If he did not, they might come back and wreak havoc.

The British Celts did not have a "Lord of Death," as some so-called experts claim, and the holiday was not named after him - it actually means "summer's end". However, the name of the sabbat may have been derived from the Aryan God Sammana, a very similar sounding name to the Middle Eastern underworld God, Sammael. In fact, this name has several variants; Samuel, Samanik, Saman, Samana and the Lithuanian Zimiennik. As is the usual case with deities, one probably spawned the others as tribes spread and diversified. The need for such a deity came with the realization, deep in our shadowy past, that we were mortal. We came to understand, as no other animal could, that death was our ultimate fate.

The timing of this year-end bash was not arbitrary nor strictly harvest-related. It falls on what is known as a "joint" of the seasons - a time of transition (think New Years Eve). On these "seams," particularly this one, the division between this world and the next became blurred. The dead, it was believed, knew this and took advantage of it, returning to visit their earthly families. The living, both in fear and awe, made the spirits welcome while at the same time, endeavoring not to be taken by them back to the land of the dead. The tradition of costumes grew from disguises worn to confuse the spirits and avoid this fate. As time went by, these costumes took on additional meaning. They represented traits or things one wished to invoke into one's life in the coming year - a bit of sympathetic magick.

Some costumes remain with us to this day as archetypes of the holiday. The witch (symbolic of priestesses who guided the dead back to their realm), the ghost and skeleton (who remind us of our mortality) and the Fool of the Tarot (who became the ever-popular Hobo) are seen every year. Modern children who go trick-or-treating in these disguises echo the children of old who went from house to house singing and begging for "soul cakes," in exchange for which, they promised to offer prayers for the donor's ancestors. If they did not receive a treat, they would often play a trick on the home owners.  

The disguises were not enough, however, to ensure safety on this night. Candles were lit in every room to guide the dead to their former abodes. They were also placated with food and drink. The "soul cakes," made from oats and currants, were set out for the ghosts (from the Germanic geist, root of both ghost and guest). Wine was left for them to quench their thirst. Sometimes, a "dumb" supper was held in their honor, with both living and dead sharing the same table. The living guests remained silent in reverence for the dead, hence the "dumb," or silent, meal. The food was left out overnight for the spirits to enjoy at their leisure.

In Ireland, Samhain was also a fire festival. On Samhain Eve, all the fires in the district were extinguished and a huge bonfire built upon the nearest hill. The dead hearth fires were then re-lit from embers from the ceremonial bonfire. The jack-o-lantern, ubiquitous symbol of the holiday, evolved as a method of transporting these new flames; it originally being a hollowed-out turnip. The glowing embers were carried inside. When the Irish emigrated to America, turnips were scarce so the pumpkin was a fitting substitute. Eventually, faces were carved into them and they took their place as a major symbol of the holiday.

Divinatory practices abounded on this night since the "veil between the worlds" was so thin. It was believed that the dead had knowledge of the future and could be persuaded to tell all if properly approached. Tarot cards were read, runes cast and scrying (water or fire gazing) was done in an attempt to gain this knowledge for the living. Young girls would try to find out about their husbands-to-be by naming hazelnuts for each suitor and throwing them into the fire. The first one to jump out indicated the name of her intended. She could cut an apple into nine pieces, eat eight and throw the last over her shoulder behind her. If she turned fast enough, she would see an image of her future husband picking it up. Peeling an apple while standing before a mirror would conjure the same vision.

Apples, in Celtic tradition, are symbols of the soul. As Halloween is also the time of the third and final harvest, this made them an important feature of the holiday. One of the most popular games on this day was (and still is) bobbing for apples. The barrels in which the apples floated represented the cauldron of the Goddess Cerridwen, where all souls would go upon death. In its original form, the game may have had a divinatory aspect. It may be that the last person who "bobbed" an apple was considered to be the first who would die in the new year for, after the game was done, the players ran away "to escape the short-tailed black sow." The sow was a reference to Cerridwen's totem animal and earthly guise.

This, then, is the background for our modern Halloween. Since its secularization, it has been embraced as a harmless bit of fun by most people. And, unless you are a Pagan/Wiccan, so it is. These symbols and practices have only the meaning you give to them. Even if you do decide to take the day as it is intended, it is still no more than a day to honor our beloved dead and begin a new cycle. So, go ahead and celebrate Halloween, no matter what your faith, for it is a reminder of our mortality and a call to rejoice in life.

Gum fosgladh dorus na gliadhna uibhe chum sith, sonas, is samchair: May the door of the coming year open for you to peace, happiness, and quiet contentment. ~Old Scots Samhain Blessing

Now, how about a couple of traditional Samhain recipes?

Colcannon (from the Gaelic cal ceannan for white-headed cabbage) is the signature food of the Irish and Scottish Samhain feast. It can be made in small or large quantities to suit your mealtime needs. For Samhain/Halloween, it’s traditional to hide “divinatory tokens” in your pot of colcannon before serving (but if you do this, be sure to warn everyone that there are non-edibles in the food). The customary tokens usually stick. Whoever gets one in their portion will, supposedly, see what the new year holds in store for them. The coin symbolizes wealth; the ring predicts a marriage; the thimble and button stand for spinster or bachelorhood; and the stick means the person will travel far.
Like any traditional dish, there are many recipes for colcannon with slight variations among them, but they all contain the same basic ingredients of potatoes, cabbage (or kale), and onions (or leeks, or scallions). I use a 3:2:1 ratio as follows…

3 parts potatoes
2 parts cabbage
1 part onions
Lots of butter (or margarine)
A little cream (or milk)

Directions: Boil, drain, and mash the potatoes. Shred and steam the cabbage until tender. Chop and sauté the onions in a generous amount of butter. Stir all the ingredients together with a little cream to facilitate the mixing, more butter if desired, and salt and pepper to taste. Add your tokens and serve.

And for dessert:
Easy Pumpkin-Pudding Pie

1 box vanilla instant pudding mix
2 cups sour cream
1 cup plain canned pumpkin (or fresh if you're ambitious)
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin

Directions: Stir the dry pudding mix into the sour cream, then blend in the pumpkin, sugar and spice. Pour into the pie crust and chill in the fridge before serving. Top with whipped cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg if desired. Or decorate with candy corn, raisins, or nuts.

Sources:
The History Of Samhain And Halloween
History Of Halloween
Halloween on the History Channel
The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows
Halloween: Customs, Recipes & Spells by Silver Ravenwolf
The Kitchen Witch Halloween Book (The Kitchen Witch Collection) by Mimi Riser, Kindle Edition.

*NOTE* On October 31, I will publish a Remembrance List for Samhain. If you have someone you would like to be included on this list - someone who has died since last November first - please send me a message and I will be sure to add the name(s).

Originally posted to The Way The Wind Blows on Tue Oct 30, 2012 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, PaganKos, and Street Prophets .

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