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Wiccan Sabbats:

Samhain: the precursor to Halloween?
Observed annually on or about October-31:

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popular view of a Wiccan 1

Popular, and inaccurate, view of a Wiccan

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Historical Celtic information about Samhain:


The ancient Celts divided the year into only two seasons. Samhain marked the end of the warm season, the end of the harvest time, the start of the cold season, and the evening before the beginning of the new year. The name of this seasonal day of celebration is:

  • "Samhain" in Irish; "Samhuinn" or Samhainnin in Scottish Gaelic. Both mean "summer's end."

  • "Nos Galan Gaeaf" In Welsh which means "winter’s eve."

  • "Blodmonath" in Anglo-Saxon as, which means "blood month," and

  • A word in Norse that translates as the "winter nights."

Unfortunately, at the time that Irish observed Samhain, and left no documentaton about their practices. Most of the information about them came from non-Celtic sources long afterwards. 11 Some have speculated that Celts believed that the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its thinnest at this time of the year. Opportunities to communicate with the dead were at their maximum. When a family ate their evening meal, they might set a place for a relative who had died, in the hope that this would facilitate their appearance. But the accuracy of this information remains somewhat shakey.

There is evidence that this time of celebration has been observed since neolithic times -- 4000 to 2500 BCE. Some passage tombs created during that era were aligned to the direction of the sunrise on this day of the year.

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Conservative Christian beliefs about Samhain/Haloween:

On 2018-OCT-30, Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) posted his "Daily e-Truth" which acknowledged "the veil" but said that it:

"... was pierced, releasing demons, witches, and hobgoblins en masse to harass the living. In order to make themselves immune from attack, people disguised themselves as witches, devils, and ghouls; attempted to ward off evil spirits by carving grotesque faces on gourds illuminated with candles; and placated the spirits with a variety of treats." 12

The CRI statement is similar to speculations by other conservative Christian sources, and may totally inaccurate. Conservative Christians have often connected Halloween with their concept of Satan roaming the earth seeking people that he can destroy. Many Christians have actively opposed the observation of Halloween. With conflict between and among religions, accuracy and truth often is in very short supply.

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Modern-day Wiccan celebrations at this time of year:

Samhain is often pronounced, in error, as "SAM HANE." The correct pronunciations are SAH-win or SOW-in. 2

Wicca is a Neo-pagan, Earth centered religion. It is a modern attempted reconstruction of ancient Celtic beliefs. Wiccans celebrate eight seasonal days of celebration each year. Four minor Sabbats occur on the two solstices and the two equinoxes at the start of each of the four seasons. Four major Sabbats occur between a solstice and an equinox. Of the major Sabbats, Samhain is considered the most important.

In the Northern hemisphere:

  • Most Wiccans celebrate Samhain on the last day of October
  • Some Neo-pagans celebrate it on the day that is half way between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. This is typically about NOV-05 ~+mn~ a couple of days.

  • Others celebrate it at the halfway point as measured in degrees along the ecliptic. For 2017, this is in the early morning of NOV-07 at 00:25 AM Eastern Time. 3

  • Still others celebrate it at the time of the full moon closest to the midway point between the equinox and solstice, which varies ~+mn~ a couple of weeks from year to year.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Wiccans generally observe it during their Fall on APR-30 or MAY-01. 4

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Catholic beliefs about Samhain:

The Roman Catholic Church had a policy many centuries ago of recycling and adopting ancient Pagan celebrations and locations.

Jack Santino, writing for The American Folklife Center, said:

"As a result of their efforts to wipe out ‘pagan’ holidays, such as Samhain, the Christians succeeded in effecting major transformations in it. In 601 ... [CE] Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples' customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship." 5

The Church embraced Samhain and refer to it as All Hallow's Eve. They retained the date as OCT-31. It is followed on NOV-01 as All Saints' Day which is also known as All Hallows, Day of All the Saints, Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints.

Liz Leafloor, writing in Ancient Origins, said:

"In the 12th century, holy days of obligation across Europe involved town criers dressed all in black, ringing mournful bells and calling on Christians to remember the poor souls of the dead. Special 'soul cakes' would be baked and shared. This custom of 'souling' was shared in England, Germany, Belgium, Austria and Italy, and is thought to be the early precursor of trick-or-treating.

Eventually, mumming and guising (going door-to-door in disguise and performing in exchange for food) was taken up in a depiction of these ancient customs. Pranks were a way of confounding evil spirits. Pranks at Samhain date as far back as 1736 in Scotland and Ireland, and this led to Samhain being dubbed 'Mischief Night'." 6

The Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, and a few other Protestant denominations also observe a third day at this time of year. It is All Souls Day on NOV-02. It is a time to honor the dead. Eastern Orthodox Churches observe multiple All Souls' Days each year. Wihin the Catholic Church, many -- perhaps most -- people are believed to be sent to Purgatory temporarily after death where they are "cleansed and perfected" before they are allowed into Heaven. This is generally regarded as a type of "Hell-light" where inhabitants are tortured with fire, until they are purified. The Church teaches that prayers by the living can speed up the transition of dead people into Heaven. A logical result of this belief is that famous people and people with large families will spend less time in Purgatory for the same level of sin than relatively unknown people and people with small or unobserving families. Belief in Purgatory is considered a heresy by most Protestant denominations. Purgatory is considered both an immoral concept and non-existent by most secularists.

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Secular viewpoints:

The secular world has embraced Celtic Sabbat of Samhain and refers to it as Halloween -- a shortened form of "All Hallows' Evening." It is a time for home owners to decorate their dwelling with themes related to death, evil witches, tombstones, and other scary items. It is a time for children to shake down people in their neighborhood for candy and other treats. It has become a major, yearly, child-oriented celebration throughout North America.

Ronald Hutton, writing in The Guardian, a main UK newspaper, said:

"In the 20th century it developed into a national festivity for Americans, retaining the old custom of dressing up to mock powers of dark, cold and death, and a transforming one by which poor people went door to door to beg for food for a feast of their own, morphing again into the children’s one of trick or treat. By the 1980s this was causing some American evangelical Christians to condemn the festival as a glorification of the powers of evil (thus missing all its historical associations), and both the celebrations and condemnations have spilled over to Britain.

On the whole, though, the ancient feast of Winter’s Eve has regained its ancient character, as a dual time of fun and festivity, and of confrontation of the fears and discomforts inherent in life, and embodied especially in northern latitudes by the season of cold and dark." 7

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About the "Great God Samhain" and other myths:

Many conservative Christians and others believe that Samhain -- the Sabbat -- is named after Samhain, the Celtic "god of death." For example:

  • Michael Warnke, in his book "Schemes of Satan"wrote that the Druids sacrificed humans at Samhain to appease the great god Samhain. They allegedly threw victims into raging fires.

  • Bill Schnoebeln said that Samhain, which he wrote as "Saman," referred to the Celtic god of the dead.

  • Barbara Walker, in her book Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets" said that the Samhain festival was:

    "named for the Aryan Lord of Death, Samana, 'the Leveller,' or the Grim Reaper ..." 7

It seems that there is no Druidic or Celtic god called Samhain, or by any similar name.

There have been numerous attacks by religious conservatives intended to discredit Wicca and other Neo-pagan religions by using the "Great God Samhain" myth. More details.

Some conservative Christains believe that Halloween is celebrated by modern Satanists as the Devil's birthday. That is impossible because modern-day Satanists regard Satan as a symbolic principle and not a living entity who would have been born on a specific date. 9

The Church of Satan's web site states that, since Satanism is a religion that focuses on the lives of its members, that they are given the option of observing or ignoring any and all holidays. However, some choose to celebrate Halloween on OCT-31 as the "Fall climax" -- the approximately halfway point between the Summer solstice and Winter Equinox. 10

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Image downloaded from pixabay.com at: https://pixabay.com/ by OpenClipart-Vectors. CC0 Creative Commons
  2. Douglas Harper, From Online Etymology Dictionary, Dictionary.com web site: http://dictionary.reference.com/
  3. "2017 Equinox, Solstice & Cross-Quarter Moments," Archaeostronomy, at: http://www.archaeoastronomy.com/
  4. PackRat & Jenwytch, "Southern Hemisphere Sabbat Dates," Spheres of Light, 2013, at: http://spheresoflight.com.au/
  5. Jack Santino, "The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows," The American Folklife Center," 2009, at: http://www.loc.gov/
  6. Liz Leafloor, "Crossing the Veil: The Pre-Christian Origins of Halloween and Samhain," Ancient Origins, 2014-OCT-30, at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/
  7. Ronald Hutton, "Halloween? It's more than trick or treat," The Guardian, 2014-OCT-28, at: http://www.theguardian.com/
  8. book cover Kerr Cuhulain, "Pagan Religions: A handbook for diversity training." Acorn Guild Press; 4th edition (2011). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store Amazon customers give this book a rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. The author is a Canadian -- a former police detective who was involved in anti defamation activism and hate crimes investigation for the Pagan community for nearly 20 years.
  9. "Is Halloween Satanic? ThoughtCo., undated, at: https://www.thoughtco.com/
  10. "What holidays do Satanists celebrate," Church of Satan, 1999-2017, at: http://www.churchofsatan.com/"
  11. Catherine Beyer, "What is Halloween?," Mystagogy Resource Center, 2011-OCT-29, at: https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/
  12. Hank Hanegraaff, "How should Christians respond to Halloween? Part One," Christian Research Institute, at: https://mailchi.mp/

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Copyright 2015 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2015-OCT-22
Latest update : 2018-OCT-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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