Michaela Brady
Michaela Brady • Oct 28


by Michaela Brady

Last week, I took a long meander through Port Meadow, Oxford just after sunset. My head was in a fog, congested and exhausted, desperately seeking relief in the sharp, cold air. As I exited the field, I caught a coruscant light through the trees. I initially thought it was a stadium light in the distance, but a few steps forward brought me face-to-face with the rising moon. It was a bloated thing, basking in the sun’s remaining rays before it dominated the sky. Despite my numbing hands and runny nose, I remained, watching it drift above the clouds. There was an understanding somewhere deep in my mind that I needed to wait, in silent vigil, to greet the autumn night. 

While plastic pumpkins, cascades of candy, and the smell of burning wood cutting through the air all signal the approach of Halloween, I think we’re missing the real cause for celebration. Before Party City, before horror films and skin-irritating make-up pallets, there was Samhain.

Before Party City, before horror films and skin-irritating make-up pallets, there was Samhain.

Samhain is a Celtic festival that sits at the intersection between an autumn harvest festival and a New Year’s celebration. While we still have to wait for our New Year in January (a tradition that has only been around since 1600), the Celts marked theirs in autumn by preparing for the frigid, dark nights ahead.

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Before we delve further into Halloween’s pagan roots, it’s important to clarify two things: there were many different Celtic cultures (Scottish Gaels, Britons, Galatians, and many more) but this article will mainly be discussing the Celts in Ireland; Irish pronunciations can be confusing to the naked eye, so here are some key terms:

  • Oíche = ee-heh = “night”

  • Sidhe = shee = “spirits”

  • Samhain = sow-en = “November/winter harvest festival” (potentially derived from Old Irish words for “summer” (samhradh) and “end” (fuin))

  • Shamhna = how-na = “of November” (adjective form)

When combined, Oíche Shamhna (ee-heh how-na) is transliterated as “Night of November”, and pardon my conjecture, but it sounds suspiciously similar to a reverse “Halloween”. Traditionally, since Samhain itself is November 1st, and the Celts followed a lunar calendar, celebrations began at the rising of the moon the night before, and continued throughout the following day. 

As the nights grew colder and longer, and humanity straddled the boundary between one year and the next, it was believed the veil between our world and the world of the dead (the Otherwold) became so thin that sidhe could enter ours. All rules of time and space vanished as they stalked the fields, searching for those they knew in their former lives and their descendants. These spirits were not only the ghosts of those who had died, but of supernatural creatures who could inflict great harm through deception, mischief, or horror. Dark deities, such as the Winter Crone, the God of the Dead, and the deity of ritual slaughter could bring great instability in the void between years. It is from this instability that many pranks and dares took place.

All rules of time and space vanished as they stalked the fields, searching for those they knew in their former lives and their descendants.

This may sound akin to Día de los Muertos, celebrated in Mexico around the same time. Indeed, with the encroaching frost and darkness eliminating crops as early as September—Irish weather has never been kind—the Celts experienced a sense of panic, of losing touch with the living. Samhain was the last chance to ward off evil.

The Celts used many tactics that can still be seen today among neo-Pagans and everyday citizens alike. They would light enormous bonfires, wear ugly masks so spirits could not recognise them and seal their chimneys. Meanwhile, some showed respect for the dead, setting out simple dishes or treats in their home, or leaving a seat at the table, to offer hospitality to their ancestors.

Evidenced by this tradition, Samhain was not only about fear. Humans could take advantage of the passage to the Otherworld too, as some believed people could unlock supernatural knowledge in the chaos. Divination was common during some celebrations, and has continued in neo-Pagan rituals as well, such as those among Druids or Wiccans.

The bonfires are a key trademark of Samhain and other Celtic festivals; like Uisneach, it is considered a fire festival. It is no coincidence Guy Fawkes night happens so soon after Samhain. Practically, lighting great fires was an illusion, mimicking the sun to confuse the sidhe; they also produced warmth and a community hub. However, with the crossing of spirits into our world, then leaving in the morning, there is a strong sense of moving on, of casting off the old and welcoming the new year. Lighting immense fires is an instinctive, psychological exercise in releasing our inhibitions, our fears, and beginning anew. Immersed in the encroaching darkness of winter, and indeed the darkness within ourselves, we sit in a reserved, reflective state until the rebirth of the sun on the winter solstice. 

Even the name “bonfire”, derived from “bonefire”, alludes to the process of moving on. The Celts often dried the bones of those who they lost and carried them in their clothes or bags. They protected the bones, held the remains of their loved ones on all their journeys, until they were ready to release them to Belenus, the sun god. It was only then that they cast the bones into the great fire, into the sun. 

Samhain is an important holiday for community, for connection to nature’s spirits, and honouring one’s ancestors.

That’s not to say the silly costumes and candy cheapen this holiday’s more reverential aspects. Rather, I think we would all benefit from adding the best parts of Samhain to our annual frivolity. Samhain is an important holiday for community, for connection to nature’s spirits, and honouring one’s ancestors. Gather some friends to light a bonfire, try your hand at scrying and divination, or leave a treat out for the dead to pass through your home. This year, I think I’ll say the names of my ancestors (the ones I know of) in prayer, hoping they can hear me through the thinned veil to the Otherworld.

Further reading:

  • Treat or Trick? Halloween in a Globalising World by High O’Donnell and Malcolm Foley

  • Newgrange’s website on Samhain: 

  • The Celtic Shaman (Practical Guide) by John Matthews

  • The Druids: Magicians of the West by Ward Rutherford

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Michaela Brady
Michaela Brady

Michaela Brady lives in Oxford, UK. When not immersed in research for her public policy job, or copyediting Bright articles, she has an unshakeable need to write in her free time. An NYC native, she studied creative writing, media history and social psychology at Sarah Lawrence College. She then completed a master’s degree in Social Science of the Internet at Oxford University in 2018, where she focused on cyberbullying and mental illness online. She has been published in Psychology Today Magazine, Airplane Reading, 101 Words, The Oxford Review of Books, The Story Seed, was shortlisted for the Benjamin Franklin House 2019 Literary Prize, and won first place in the Nature 2020-21 literary competition for the blog, “Tales for the Ones in Love”.

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