The Celtic New Year

[Celtic Cross] Celtic Feast of Samhain: Celtic New Year

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November 1 is the Celtic feast of Samhain. Samhain, Gaelic for "summer's end," was the most important of the ancient Celtic feasts.

The Celts honored the intertwining forces of existence: darkness and light, night and day, cold and heat, death and life. Celtic knotwork represents this intertwining. The Celts observed time as proceeding from darkness to light. The Celtic day began at dusk, the beginning of the dark and cold night, and ended the following dusk, the end of a day of light and warmth. The Celtic year began with An Geamhradh, the dark Celtic winter, and ended with Am Foghar, the Celtic harvest. Samhain marks the beginning of both An Geamhradh and the new Celtic year.

Samhain and the new Celtic year actually begin at dusk on October 31, the beginning of the Celtic day. Oidhche Shamhna, the Eve of Samhain, was the most important part of Samhain. Villagers gathered the best of the autumn harvest and slaughtered cattle for the feast. The focus of each village's festivities was a great bonfire. Villagers cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. (Our word bonfire comes from these "bone fires.") With the great bonfire roaring, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit their hearth from the one great common flame, bonding all families of the village together.

The eve of the Celtic year was a very holy time. The Celts believed that Oidhche Shamhna was a gap in time. Our world and the Otherworld came together on the night between the old and new years. The dead could return to the places where they had lived. Many rituals of Oidhche Shamhna provided hospitality for dead ancestors. Celts put out food and drink for the dead with great ceremony. They left their windows, doors, and gates unlocked to give the dead free passage into their homes. Swarms of spirits poured into our world on November Eve. Not all of these spirits were friendly, so Celts carved the images of spirit-guardians onto turnips. They set these jack o'lanterns before their doors keep out unwelcome visitors from the Otherworld.

There was also a much lighter side to the Celtic New Year rituals. Young people would put on strange disguises and roam about the countryside, pretending to be the returning dead or spirits from the Otherworld. Celts thought the break in reality on November Eve not only provided a link between the worlds, but also dissolved the structure of society for the night. Boys and girls would put on each other's clothes, and would generally flout convention by boisterous behavior and by playing tricks on their elders and betters.

Divination of the events of the coming year was another prominent feature of Samhain. Celts used hazelnuts, symbols of wisdom, to foretell the future. Bobbing for apples, another traditional Samhain pastime, was a reference to the Celtic Emhain Abhlach, "Paradise of Apples," where the dead, having eaten of the sacred fruit, enjoyed a blissful immortality.

Ancient Celtic religion cast the year as a contest between the gods of winter and summer for the favor of the goddess of the earth. The god of summer claimed victory at Latha Buidhe Bealltainn, May Day, but at Samhain the god of winter, who was also lord of the dead, was victorious. Celts often depicted the god of winter with antlers which he shed each autumn like a stag. In parts of western Brittany the coming of winter is still heralded by the baking of kornigou. Kornigou are little cakes in the shape of antlers to commemorate the god of winter shedding his "cuckold" horns as he returns to his kingdom in the Otherworld.

Many ancient Celtic customs proved compatible with the new Christian religion. Christianity embraced the Celtic notions of family, community, the bond among all people, and respect for the dead. The Western Church gave Samhain a Christian blessing in 837 AD when November 1 was designated the Feast of All Saints or Hallow Tide. Oidhche Shamhna became Hallow E'en.

Stephen Clif Brown, Clan Henderson

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