Samhain marked the end of the harvest, the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”. It was traditionally celebrated over the course of several days. Many scholars believe that it was the beginning of the Celtic year. It has some elements of a festival of the dead. The Gaels believed that the border between this world and the otherworld became thin on Samhain; because some animals and plants were dying, it thus allowed the dead to reach back through the veil that separated them from the living. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. People and their livestock would often walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames.
The Gaelic custom of wearing costumes and masks, was an attempt to copy the spirits or placate them. In Scotland the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white. Samhnag — turnips which were hollowed-out and carved with faces to make lanterns — were also used to ward off harmful spirits.
The Gaelic festival became associated with the Christian All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and has hugely influenced the secular customs now connected with Halloween, a name first attested in the 16th century as a Scottish shortening of the fuller All-Hallows-Even. Samhain continues to be celebrated as a religious festival by some Neopagans.
Samhain is observed by various Neopagans in various ways. As forms of Neopaganism can differ widely in both their origins and practices, these representations can vary considerably despite the shared name. Some Neopagans have elaborate rituals to honor the dead, and the deities who are associated with the dead in their particular culture or tradition. Some celebrate in a manner as close as possible to how the Ancient Celts and Living Celtic cultures have maintained the traditions, while others observe the holiday with rituals culled from numerous other unrelated sources, Celtic culture being only one of the sources used.
I know that some Christian groups don’t celebrate Halloween because of its Pagan origins, and that others would certainly seek to distance themselves from a celebration that can easily be seen as “dark” and possibly even “Satanic.”
But look at it this way: Samhain was the way that the ancient Celts remembered and honored their dead. This practice is continued through the celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in a Christian context, not because Christian doctrine or tradition mandated it, but because people needed to remember those who they had lost over the years.
So this weekend, even if you don’t celebrate Halloween in any way, perhaps you might want to take the time to remember someone who has passed on. It’s in the spirit of the season, you know.