Contrary to popular belief, the Celts did not celebrate the solstice or equinox. These celebrations have been brought into practice later in history, more to honour Celtic custom than as a proper part of it..
There are four traditional Celtic festivals, known as the fire festivals. They were celebrated annually and are known as the festival of Samhain (ends & beginnings), that of Oimelc (a quickening), that of Bealtaine (fertility) and the festival of Lughnassadh (harvest & victory). They were based on seasonal changes and not calendar dates. Therefore they need to be honoured at the appropriate time in the cycle of seasons. Thus they will occur at opposite ends of the calendar in the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres.
One of the important themes to be noted about these celebrations is that each one occurs at a midpoint between two turning points. So, the festival of Bealtaine, celebrated from the evening of April 30th in the Northern Hemisphere, lies at the midpoint between the Spring Equinox of late March and the Summer Solstice in late June. This same pattern is followed with each of the four fire festivals and thus the face of celebration is always looking back to what has been and looking forward to what is to come. This honouring of the midpoint between two opposites is an integral part of Celtic thinking. And, just as the Celtic day began at sunset, so the Celtic year began with the onset of winter. Thus, in the Northern Hemisphere, the Celtic year both ended and began with Samhain. It was a signpost that pointed back to the end of summer and forward to the heart of winter. Samhain marks the end of the old and the beginning of the new, linking us with the world of spirit at the turning of the year.
If we are to walk the Celtic path, the festival of Samhain (pronounced So-wuhn) is a three day celebration that begins in the Northern Hemisphere with a gathering on the evening of October 31st (April 30th in the Southern Hemisphere). As we have seen, the Celts regarded night as the beginning of day and most festivals or celebrations would begin on what we would regard as the evening of the previous day. Samhain marks the last phase of the old year, its dying, and looks forward to the coming New Year.
Samhain celebrated the mating of the Dagdha, the Irish All-father with the Morrigan. The Morrigan, amongst her other attributes, is best remembered as the Raven, bird of death wisdom and goddess of the battlefield, though she had other functions than this. And just as the god of bounty and life had intercourse with the goddess of death, so Samhain is a time when intercourse between the human world and the spirit world is paramount, for the gates between this world and the unseen are opened.
Though there is confusion about the name, Samhain probably means 'seeding time'. It marks a time of cold and dark when 'seeding' for the coming spring and summer becomes the theme of life. At Samhain we seed our dreams for the New Year with vision, just as we lay to rest the ghosts of the old year. We know this festival now as Halloween or All Hallow's Eve, when the children walk abroad disguised as faerie folk, witches, demons and hobgoblins.
Samhain invokes spirits of the past, out of respect for the old year; it summons visions of the New Year, in anticipation of the future. Samhain stands at the crossroads where the passing of the old and the coming of the new intersect. Prophecies for the year ahead play a part in this festival as does the honouring of the dead and heroes past. The practice of 'trick or treat' that we know from Halloween has origins in the Celtic custom of 'food for the dead'.
Trick or Treat: Serving the Unseen World
By tradition, on Samhain eve the spirits of the ancestors, friends, loved ones and heroes were free to roam abroad, just as the children roam abroad now, dressed as faerie folk, asking for their treat. Where Christian society has lived in fear of the presence of spirits from the otherworld, the Celts acknowledged and welcomed the invisible forces, seeing them as an essential part of their own daily existence. The spirits of the dead were honoured by the living with places set for them at table, and food and drink served for them. This food was then distributed amongst the poor and needy as a means of giving something back for what had been received in the past year. This distribution was a sacred trust that, if betrayed, would incur the wrath of the faerie realm. If you don't offer the treat, you'll get the trick and lose in the coming year for your lack of generosity. This is not a punishment, just a means of maintaining a natural balance between this world and the spirit world. Give generously where it is most needed on October 31st and you will have honoured Samhain. Food for the dead also symbolizes the eternal feast enjoyed in the otherworld.
What are the traditional rites of Samhain? At sunset, gather together with friends, for fellowship is the heart of the celebration. Then make a bonfire. This should be done on the ashes of an old fire that has burnt out, symbolizing the burning out of the fire of the old year. The use of fire to cleanse and burn away the old and the unwanted is an important part of Celtic custom. This new bonfire is then celebrated as the first one of the New Year. Gorse, thornbush, fern and straw are some of the traditional materials used to light the fire. During the day you will have carved Jack o' Lanterns into skull shapes from turnips. These should be brought to the ceremony with lighted candles set inside them. The Jack o' Lantern symbolizes the flame of spirit that remains bright throughout the cold and dark of winter. The Celts believed that the head was the seat of the soul, hence they used the skull shape for this custom. People would mark stones and place them in the blaze of the bonfire, believing that it would bring good fortune if the stones were found the next day amongst the ashes. Three hazelnuts placed in the fire would bring the gift of wisdom for the coming year. A broth or soup of nine different vegetables was typical Samhain provender, with apples and nuts providing a touch of sweetness. Apples are the fruit of immortality and nuts hold the kernel of wisdom in Celtic culture.
Samhain is celebrated under the auspice of Ngetal, the Reed, one of the mystic symbols of the Celtic Ogham script, the secret language of the druids. Ngetal the Reed riles the binding of opposites and opposite worlds, the practical completions that are necessary and the wild dance of spirit music that flows from the hidden world into this one. Remember that spirit walks free on Samhain. On that night we can open the doors to the unseen world. As the children remind us when they walk abroad disguised for Halloween, the faerie realm is at the door and we can see and speak with those passed over. Remember that we need to know the world of spirit to live to the full, just as spirit needs the human world to fulfill itself. By honouring the dead at Samhain, we honour those who have gone before us but, equally, we honour life itself by celebrating the knowledge that nothing truly dies.
In part three, Neil Giles examines the meaning of Oimelc, the festival of the Goddess Brigid, and Bealtaine (Beltane), the celebration of the fruitfulness of Mother Earth.
Read More About The Celtic Fire Festivals