Happy Celtic New Year!

Samhain Celebrations

As I’ve dived deeper into the ancient history and culture of Great Britain these last 12 months or so, purely out of personal interest, I’ve been delighted to discover just how many of our “modern-day” celebrations and traditions are far more ancient than I initially thought.

Modern or Ancient Traditions?

I’ve known since I was a pretty young child that Christmas, for example, was in fact a Pagan holiday allegedly hijacked by the early Christian church as a way to cement the new religion of Christianity on the people but allowing them to celebrate in a way and at a time they were used to, albeit under a different name. Originally known here as Yule by the Celts and later as Saturnalia following the Roman invasion, many of the traditions of Christmas such as decorating homes with holly, mistletoe and even decorating a tree clearly pre-date Christ’s birth. Why at this time of the year? It coincided with the Winter Equinox, a time that marks when the shortest day/longest night of the year, and was really a celebration of light and dark, like so many ancient celebrations.

I remember learning at school that Halloween was really All Hallows’ Eve, as 1 November was All Saints’ Day, being a day to remember Christian saints and martyrs. In fact, from what I’ve read since, Pope Boniface IV only created this celebration in the year 609 and purposely chose the date to coincide with the date Samhain was celebrated, again to replace the Pagan holiday.

More recently, as I started researching Samhain and how it used to be celebrated by the Celts, I was interested to note that bonfires would be lit. This raised the obvious question to me – is our modern day celebration of Bonfire Night here in the UK somehow linked to Samhain rather than Guy Fawkes? I can’t blame the Christian church for this (who I have nothing against by the way!) – whilst at the time there was a war waging between Protestants and Catholics and had been since the time of the Restoration, I think this was more a case of old habits of the people die hard, and celebrating Bonfire Night kept the old tradition alive, just for different reasons. It was a good way for those who still followed the old faith to practice the traditions of the ancient religion without arousing suspicion from those who would otherwise have called them witches and heretics. Confessing to being either Catholic or Pagan back then would likely lead to the same outcome – execution – frequently by burning!

Traditional Samhain Celebrations

Samhain was a 3-day festival honoured by the ancient Celtic pagans here in the UK during the time of the Iron Age, which means “summer’s end”, thus ushering in the Celtic new year. Some of the key themes believed to have been part of Samhain include:

  • Cycle of death and rebirth celebrated as the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter;
  • Final preparations for winter e.g. crops, animal sacrifices;
  • Bonfires/fire festivals to mark the autumn equinox and the start of the dark half of the year;
  • Visibility of the gods by humans, the occult and spirits from the Otherworld;
  • Offerings left for visiting spirits;
  • Playing of pranks and tricks;
  • Fortune-telling for the year to come;
  • Dressing up/costume wearing.

Do any of these look familiar?

When I was little, we were not allowed to go trick or treating as my mother classed it as “begging” and believed also that it was unsafe. We did go to family Halloween parties, bobbing for apples, dressing up usually in a black bin bag with witch face paint on and, with my mum’s birthday being on Bonfire Night, we usually celebrated that too by having a bonfire in the back garden and watching everyone else’s fireworks (being not very well off ourselves!).

Some people say that Halloween has become too “Americanised” but I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. For our honeymoon, my husband and our kids went to Florida in October/November and if there’s one thing Americans do fantastically well in my view, it’s got to be Halloween!! Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights are fantastic and Disney’s Not So Scary Halloween equally fun for little ones. In the UK, Alton Towers and a lot of farms put on some great events too with Halloween being more popular than ever these days. What a wonderful way to keep the old beliefs and traditions of our ancestors alive and kicking for future generations!

I personally feel like I’ve really connected with the Samhain celebration this year. I love that traditionally it was a way to remember those who have gone on to the spirit world and I’ve now discovered that Bonfire Night may be linked to the festival too. My mum died at only 53 a few years ago and with Bonfire Night being her birthday, it has given a special day even more meaning for me.

The kids, me and the dog all went trick or treating and I was blown away by some of the effort people went to this year – fantastic and all in the name of good fun.

Now I’m off to put the pumpkins to good use and make a warming pumpkin soup for supper – yum!

6 thoughts on “Happy Celtic New Year!


    The commercialisation of the very old pagan new year got me thinking of how we might really celebrate it. Thinking of Samhain you have my permission to use this Samhain blessing however you see is most fitting. You might like to pray for the souls of your loved ones who have passed away or meditate on how you would like to live your life anew, maybe fulfilling some of their wonderful life goals which they did not manage to accomplish whilst on earth. Whilst we need no ritual these days in order to pray and meditate, this is how I imagine our ancestors did it over 2000 years ago.

    It is taken from page 366 of ‘Where Rowans Intertwine’

    ‘Perhaps, during the Samhain meditation, when the whole tribe remembered their recent dead and the veil was thin between this world and the next, she would link with Nanw and hear her advice. Her grandmother would know what to do.

    The ritual progressed. This year it was the turn of the family at Tan Yr Aur to act out the various roles. The fire danced in the festival clearing. Marged, dressed in a dark brown tunic, stood by the fire with a great basket full of dried herbs; thyme to aid the link between departed souls and bring them closer; rosemary for remembrance; rue for forgiveness.

    She represented the Spirit of Autumn – the ageing crone, who would go down into the Otherworld for Winter, taking with her the spirits of the trees and plants.

    She beckoned to those newly bereaved and, as they stood before the fire, transferred the herbs into their outstretched palms. Gwilym stood forward in his costume and headdress of rustling, russet, oak branches and bound their wrists together, one after the other, tying them together in their grief. They each in turn inhaled the fragrance from the herbs and cast them into the fire.

    Then Ceridwen stepped forwards and handed each bound mourner a branch of yew, from the tree that symbolised death and rebirth. She led them to circumambulate the fire and, as they did so, she chanted hauntingly, as simultaneously they swept their grief into the consuming fire with the branches of yew.

    ‘Sweet Fire do burn away the grief

    Of man, of woman and child alike,

    Who come for healing to your flames.

    Take pain and sorrow with your smoke.

    Bring memories sweet to comfort’s door.

    The names of loved ones we invoke;

    Their souls to visit us once more.’

    They repeated it after her and Cullen played a whispering melody upon his pipe, as each mourner invoked the name of their departed one. The whole assemblage chanted the name in unison thereafter, until a pulsing yearning and demanding drew each departed soul nearer. Some fancied they saw the face of their loved one smiling at them from the flames. Some saw nothing, but felt the swish and sweep of protective wings wrap around them.

    Lady Tangwen gasped in wonder, as she beheld the spirit of her young son visit her embrace. For a moment it was as if their two souls passed through each other. She had not expected such a visitation. He had been gone from her almost five years, but to behold him now a man was a spectacle her eyes had yearned for. And here he was. He must not have rebirthed, but have developed in spirit to maturity.

    Ceridwen stood wistfully apart, mourning herself, for lack of Marcus, feeling only half alive, as everyone, apart from herself, seated themselves and waited silently for her to lead their thoughts in meditation. She shook herself and sighed, impatient with her own attitude. She should be so grateful that Marcus had survived. He could so easily have died from his wounds. She refocused and began the job in hand; but the words she recited were empty of meaning for her and a picture of Nanw would not present itself to her inner vision, despite the aroma of smoking deadly nightshade, which she swung in her incense burner.

    Madog signalled the conclusion of the meditation with slow tapping and then a rap upon his drum. Owain appeared in the clearing, dressed in a costume of Holly twigs that represented the Spirit of Winter to come. He plunged a large, bladed knife into the fire. Then, to a triumphant tune on pipe and tabor, he grinned self-consciously as he ceremoniously cut the mourners’ ropes. Symbolically the mourners were now released from their bonds of grief, which they had harboured this last year. Now they could willingly allow their loved ones to rebirth.

    Page 366 ‘Where Rowans Intertwine’ Margaret Grant

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