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What is Samhain and how is it celebrated?

BY Becca Inglis

20th Oct 2022 Halloween

What is Samhain and how is it celebrated?

Samhain is an old Celtic festival that lay the foundations for Halloween. We find out how to celebrate Samhain today at festivals around the British Isles

What does Samhain have to do with Halloween?

Samhain is the original Halloween, which was celebrated by ancient Celtic communities to signify the start of winter (“Samhain”, or “Samhuinn”, roughly translates to “summer’s end” from Gaelic). 

Emerging midway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, Samhain was considered a pivotal point between the lighter and darker parts of the year.

For the superstitious Celts, according to historian Ronald Jutton, “it was a time when they turned to their Gods and Goddesses seeking to understand the turning cycles of life and death.”

Once Christianity gained a foothold in the British Isles, the church appealed to its would-be converts by matching its holidays to the old pagan festivals. Samhain became All Saint’s Day, then All Hallow’s Eve (from the old English for “All Saints”, “All-hallowmas”) and then finally Halloween

Samhain has enjoyed a revival in recent years, particularly in old Celtic strongholds in Ireland and Scotland. 

Where to celebrate Samhain around the UK and Ireland

Samhuinn Fire Festival—Edinburgh, Scotland

Person in Halloween Samhuinn costume and face paint holds up fire toyCredit: James Armandary for Beltane Fire Society

Atop Edinburgh’s Calton Hill in the centre of the city, Samhuinn Fire Festival is an immersive pageant that recreates Scotland’s Samhain traditions.

Attracting an audience of thousands—a reported 7,500 went in 2019—it narrates the battle between the Winter King, the Summer King and their followers (which the Winter King inevitably wins). 

Although some of today’s Halloween traditions are often considered to be American imports, many customs in fact go back to the Celtic Samhain. The habit of dressing up, for example, comes from Scottish “guising” (or “galoshin”, which means “disguise”). 

"The habit of dressing up comes from Scottish 'guising' (or 'galoshin', which means 'disguise') "

It was believed that on Samhain night, the border between our world and that of the dead would grow thin and allow evil spirits to pass through. To protect themselves, Samhain celebrants disguised themselves as one of these ghastly visitors. 

Today in Edinburgh, audience members can wander through an interactive performance populated by supernatural creatures, led by the most mysterious of all, the Cailleach (a pagan winter goddess, also known as “the Veiled One”). 

Púca Festival—Athboy, Republic of Ireland

Fire was a crucial part of Samhain rituals, and nowhere more so than Tlachtga, or the Hill of the Ward, in Ireland’s County Meath. This area is considered by some to be the birthplace of Halloween, and is where Púca Festival has resurrected the tradition. 

In History of Ireland, 17th-century historian Geoffrey Keating describes how the old Irish built an enormous bonfire at the top of Tlachtga. “It was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire,” he writes.

This Samhain bonfire was believed to have protective properties. Allowing each hearth to burn out and be relit from that same fire would purportedly strengthen the community against the challenges of winter. 

Derry Halloween—Derry, Northern Ireland

There were four pagan festivals that structured the Celtic calendar year (Samhain, Beltane, Imbolc and Lughnasadh), and some believe that Samhain was the most significant.

Attendance may even have been mandatory, Jane Markle writes in The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween, with much feasting and revelling over three days.

"Samhain was the most significant pagan festival. Attendance may even have been mandatory"

A suitably extravagant Samhain can be found today in Derry, which attracts around 140,000 visitors to its weekend-long festival. Over four days, the city comes to life with costumed processions, music and family-friendly activities. 

Highlights include Awakening the City Walls (a ghostly programme of immersive trails, installations and projections), the After Dark music lineup, and the city’s famous Carnival parade and fireworks. 

Glastonbury Dragons’ Samhain Wild Hunt—Glastonbury, England

As a liminal period on the cusp of a new season, Samhain was an ideal time for divination. Jutton tells of one custom where families would throw stones representing each member into the Samhain fire. If one stone was out of place once the fire had burnt down, the person it represented would die that year. 

Glastonbury Dragons reference these fortune telling customs at their own Samhain procession—they cite the prophetic dragons that foretold King Arthur’s coming in early Arthurian legends as one inspiration for their mythical puppets. 

On the closest Saturday to Halloween, the Glastonbury Dragons walk a white dragon and red dragon through Glastonbury’s town centre before arriving at the Glastonbury Tor (where according to local legend, the lord of the underworld Gwyn ap Nudd resides).

Here, the white dragon defeats its red counterpart and lays it to rest until summer. 

Butser Ancient Farm’s Samhain Celebration—Hampshire, England

Cloaked person sits on floor with old drum at Butser Farm Samhain celebrationButser Ancient Farm recreates old Celtic festivals inside replica Iron Age buildings

Based in the South Downs National Park, Butser Ancient Farm is a working “ancient farm”, where archaeologists have reconstructed several Iron Age buildings to gain better insight into the everyday lives of Britain’s prehistoric people

Their Samhain Celtic Celebration is just one of the recreated ancient festivals that the site hosts each year—another worth seeing is the annual Equinox Boat Burn—and involves an evening of storytelling in a near-authentic roundhouse. 

Celtic Samhain at the Scottish Crannog Centre—Loch Tay, Scotland

Another place that investigates how our Celtic forebears lived is the Scottish Crannog Centre, which attempts to replicate the homes and habits of those who lived by Loch Tay 2,500 years ago. 

Samhain was traditionally an agricultural festival. The Celts are believed to have brought their cattle down to winter pastures around the time of Samhain, where weaker members of the herd would be killed to replenish food stocks. 

"The Celts are believed to have brought their cattle down to winter pastures around the time of Samhain"

Thankfully, there is no ceremonial slaughtering of livestock at the Scottish Crannog Centre. Instead, they burn a wicker effigy of a ram as a gesture towards the custom. 

Meanwhile, inside the Crannog (a type of Iron Age building on an artificial island and accessed over a causeway), attendees sit by the communal fireside for an evening of storytelling, shadow puppetry, and music. 

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