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Halloween seems like a Wiccan-y holiday, right? The festivities take place at night, there are witches and dark costumes, and there’s magick and mischief. And what about the Wiccan sabbat of Samhain, which falls at the same time? Is that the same thing as Halloween, or is it a different holiday altogether? Do Wiccans celebrate just one holiday, or the other, or both? We’ll cover all these questions and more as we discuss what Halloween means to Wiccans.
Halloween falls on a Wiccan sabbat called Samhain. Wiccans celebrate Samhain by paying respect to nature, honoring the dead, holding bonfires, and communicating with spirits. They may engage in modern Halloween activities, many of which resemble ancient Samhain customs like carving Jack’O’Lanterns.
Modern Halloween actually originated with the old Celtic holiday Samhain – however, it’s become heavily commercialized over the years. Samhain was originally based on nature, the harvest, and honoring the spirits and one’s ancestors. Read on to learn more about what Halloween means to Wiccans, the origins of Halloween, and how Wiccans celebrate Samhain.
Do Wiccans Celebrate Halloween?
Many Wiccans do celebrate the modern Halloween of costumes and candy, but others prefer to celebrate Samhain. Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”) begins on the evening of October 31 and ends on the evening of November 1. It has Celtic origins and is the celebration of a bountiful harvest season coming to a close, and honoring the dead.
Keep in mind that the dates for Wiccan Sabbats are based on the dates in the Northern Hemisphere. While some in the Southern Hemisphere choose to celebrate the Sabbats on the same days as the Northern half of the world, many choose to celebrate the six months opposite to follow their own changing of seasons and equinoxes.
Wiccans and Celts aren’t the only religions and cultures that consider October 31 a spiritual day. For example, there is:
- All Saints’ Day
- Día de Los Muertos
- Día de la Canción Criolla
Each of these holidays is based on the changing of the seasons and emphasizes the afterlife. Its believed that on this date the veil between the world of the living and the spirit world is thin, so we can communicate and honor our dearly deceased.
It’s interesting to note that many cultures chose this particular date to honor the dead, without one another’s influence. Across both time and geography, multiple cultures all settled on the same importance for this date.
One explanation of the selection of the same date is believed to be based on seasonal events. In the winter, much of the foliage dies, food becomes scarce, and fewer animals are out and about. This led people to believe that the coming of winter was symbolic of death.
Samhain History and the Origin of Halloween
Samhain is not exclusive to Wiccans — in fact, it didn’t originate with Wiccans at all. It was essentially “adopted” by Wiccans around the 1980s.
Wicca itself is not Celtic but it does borrow many Celtic influences, as you’ll see throughout this article. In fact, most Wiccan practices involve traditions and mythology from Western European Pagan practices, and Samhain is no exception.
What Is Samhain, Exactly?
Samhain, or “summer’s end,” is a Celtic event marking the end of the harvest. Celebrations include feasts, bonfires, and communion with spirits. Honoring the dead is a common practice — the “veil” between the world of the living and dead (aos sí) is at its thinnest during this time.
By the 9th century, the Western Church declared that November 1 would be “All Saints’ Day.” Later, November 2 became “All Souls’ Day.” It’s believed that over time, Samhain, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day influenced one another and became what we know today as Halloween.
Trick or Treating
During Samhain celebrations in Scotland, people would dress as the ao sí and go around from house to house or farm to farm requesting offerings. They’d often sing songs in exchange for food. The people would provide offerings on behalf of the spirits, as they believed that not doing so would bring misfortune.
In Ireland, before nightfall, peasants donned costumes and went around asking for food for the Samhain feast. Many people obliged, believing that the offerings would bring good fortune. If the peasants were not welcomed or provided offerings, they would threaten homeowners and farmers with mischief.
This is, perhaps, the beginning of the “trick” aspect of trick-or-treating. Playing pranks has been recorded in dozens of texts, including literature from 1736 in the Scottish Highlands. This is part of the reason why Samhain was sometimes referred to as “Mischief Night.”
The practice of wearing costumes on the night of October 31 eventually spread to England in the 20th century, as did the tradition of pranks. Over time, the tradition would carry over to the United States with Irish and Scottish immigrants, becoming what we know today as Halloween.
While out in search of food and offerings for the Samhain feast, people would illuminate their way with candles inside hollowed-out turnips or beets, often carved with frightening faces. These makeshift lanterns were also set on windowsills, and those who carried them or made them believed they represented the spirits and were used to keep evil spirits at bay.
As with the wearing of costumes, the practice of carving root vegetables spread to other parts of Britain by the 20th century, where they were referred to as “jack-o’-lanterns.”
What Does Samhain Mean to Wiccans?
Celtic Neo-Pagans and Wiccans both observe Samhain as a religious holiday, with Wiccans essentially celebrating a variation of Samhain. It’s one of the yearly Sabbats on the Wiccan “Wheel of the Year” — an annual calendar showcasing the seasonal festivals observed by Wiccans and other modern-day Pagans. The Wheel of the Year also has some origins in Ireland and Scotland — the Celts believed that time was cyclical.
Samhain is often referred to as a festival of darkness — but not in the way that Hollywood and the media would have you believe. “Darkness” doesn’t refer to “evil.” Rather, it refers to the changing of seasons, when the world continues to darken as the days become shorter and daylight scarcer. The spring celebration of Beltane, on the other hand, is considered a “celebration of light” as it signals when the days become longer.
Considered the most important Sabbat, Samhain is a time when Wiccans honor those who have passed on. Wiccans may hold rituals, do spellwork, and even invite the dead to attend their festivities.
To Wiccans, Samhain means the end of summer and the beginning of winter and is a time to honor the dead. The veil between the mortal world and the world of souls is thin. Wiccans may welcome spirits passing through and help send lost souls to the “Otherworld,” similar to Día de Los Muertos rituals.
What Do Wiccans Do on Halloween?
Many Wiccans participate in contemporary celebrations on Halloween, with costumes, parties, food, and friends. Others, however, celebrate a traditional Samhain. They pay respect to nature, honor the dead, perform rituals, cast spells, make bonfires, communicate with spirits, and reflect on the past year.
I’ll cover what many Wiccans do on Halloween more in-depth below:
Pay Respect to Nature
While honoring nature is a significant part of Wiccan practice, it’s even more important on Samhain once winter is afoot. It’s a time to be thankful for what nature has given us throughout the year.
To honor nature on Samhain, many Wiccans harvest the produce from their garden, carve pumpkins, or pick up litter. They may take a nature walk and reflect on death, rebirth, and their place in the circle of life. Some may gather autumn leaves to bring home to decorate their altar for Samhain.
Honor the Dead
During Samhain, it’s believed that the dead revisit places they once lived or frequented in search of hospitality. Because of this belief, Wiccans choose to honor the dead at this time. Some may even perform séances to connect with lost loved ones.
There are literally thousands of ways that Wiccans honor the dead on Samhain. Here are just a few:
- Researching family history
- Visiting the grave plots of those who’ve passed on
- Hosting dinner with empty chairs for spirits
- Placing photographs of the dead on their altar
Some Wiccans open their windows on the night of Samhain to allow any lost souls to leave and enter the Otherworld, or afterlife. This, too, is a Celtic tradition.
Samhain Decorations and Your Altar
Wiccans often change their altars with the changing of the seasons to represent the cyclical nature of time. Decorating altars during Samhain typically involves items in the colors of the season like oranges, purples, and reds. They also use candles in corresponding colors.
Some may add natural decorations to their altars, such as apple seeds, pine cones, rosemary, or autumn leaves. Wiccans may also use incense that corresponds with the year, such as sandalwood or patchouli for Samhain.
Others take it up a notch, decorating their altars with offerings of bounty for the spirits, including squash, pumpkins, gourds, or radishes.
Rituals, Spellwork, and Divination
The Celtic people believed that hazelnuts symbolized divine wisdom. Therefore, they often utilized hazelnuts for divination purposes, particularly relating to relationships or marriage.
One such practice involved roasting two hazelnuts, each representing a person — one for the person seeking wisdom and the other for the person they hoped to marry. It was considered an unfortunate sign if the nuts “popped” out of the fire. However, if the nuts sat and roasted without incident, it was considered a favorable match.
Another Celtic divination practice included using egg whites. They would drop the whites of eggs into a glass of water and peer into the glass. Any numbers witnessed by the seer would foretell the number of future children for the person receiving the “reading.”
Some Wiccans still perform the above divination methods to keep with tradition, but it’s up to each practitioner to decide how they choose to celebrate Samhain. Many Wiccans offer up Tarot readings, toss Runes, use a scrying ball, or even divine with flames or incense smoke.
During Samhain, energy levels are high — and Wiccans know and take advantage of this energy peak to enhance their rituals and spellwork.
Bonfires have long been a Halloween tradition. This is likely related to the hilltop bonfires held during the original Samhain festivals in Scotland and Ireland.
It’s believed that bonfires were a form of imitative magick — the fire itself is symbolic of the sun, its warmth and light keeping the cold, darkness of winter at bay. The burning of wood, crops, and animal sacrifices to the Celtic deities also represented the destroying of harmful influences — and it’s not just the fire that’s considered powerful. The smoke and ashes are considered to have protective and cleansing properties, respectively.
Because of these Celtic traditions, many Wiccans hold ritual bonfires during Samhain. They may write down bad habits or memories that they wish to release and cast them into the fire to banish those negative influences. Afterward, they may dance or walk around the fire in a clockwise direction while envisioning a better life.
Communicate With Spirits and Souls
As noted earlier, Samhain was seen as a day when spiritual energy peaked, and our world was closer than ever to the spirit world. This, to the Celts, meant that spirits could easily enter our world.
Many believed that they had to appease the spirits to ensure good fortune throughout the upcoming winter. To do this, people would leave offerings outside of their homes in hopes that they, their families, and livestock would make it through the cold, dark months ahead.
Wiccans may participate in communion with the spirits by holding séances, meditating, or asking the ancestors or spirits to protect and guide them in the upcoming year.
Contemplate and Give Thanks
In addition to honoring the dead, Samhain is a time of reflection. Often referred to as the “Witches’ New Year,” this is a time to look to the past for answers on how to better your future.
Many Wiccans spend a great deal of time contemplating and reflecting on life in general, their past, and their goals, hopes, and dreams. Some questions you might ask yourself during this time include:
- What did you learn about yourself this year?
- Did your plans come to fruition?
- What are your new plans and goals?
If they keep a Book of Shadows, some Wiccans may revisit it to see what worked and what didn’t. They may tweak their spells and rituals as necessary for the coming year.
Some may meditate during Samhain in order to reflect and grow.
Wiccan Autumn Sabbats
Wiccans celebrate many seasonal events, as shown by the Wheel of the Year. Samhain is one of four “greater Sabbats” but should not be confused with the Autumnal equinox celebration of Mabon.
Mabon (September 20–22)
Mabon is another Autumn Sabbat and takes place during the Autumnal equinox. While Samhain is the third and final harvest of the year, Mabon is the prior (2nd) harvest.
Considered a time of balance, Mabon is celebrated by Wiccans with a focus on gratitude. Historically, the gratitude was for a bountiful harvest, but today, it’s more about gratitude in general — for nature, food, friends, family.
During Mabon, Wiccans may pick apples, perform rituals using in-season herbs and plants (such as cinnamon, apple, rosemary, or sage), or even adorn their altar with symbols of the season. Other Wiccans may celebrate with a feast.
Samhain (October 31- Nov 1)
As mentioned, Samhain is originally a Celtic holiday but has been adopted by Wiccans and other Pagan communities. The Witches’ New Year is considered a time to celebrate the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This season of transformation is associated with the underworld and land of the dead, which is why it’s so important to honor the spirits during this time.
Can Anyone Celebrate Samhain?
Anyone can celebrate Samhain regardless of their religious or spiritual affiliation. Samhain originated with Celtic culture — it is not exclusive to Wicca or witchcraft in general. Celebrating Samhain is essentially honoring nature and the dead, which is something that anyone can do.
There are no set rituals, guidelines, or rules for Samhain, but the main purpose is to honor the dead. Wiccans, witches, other Pagans, and even those with no affiliation should feel free to celebrate Samhain.
Wiccans may cast Circles, open portals to the Otherworld, provide offerings outdoors for wandering spirits, or set up altars with pictures of the deceased — and others can use or adapt these practices however they see fit.
October’s Full Moon
In addition to the eight Sabbats, Wiccans celebrate “Esbats,” or monthly Sabbats, usually observed on the Full Moon. These celebrations typically honor the Goddess, and each presents with its own theme depending on the time of year.
For example, the Full Moon in October is referred to by many names:
- Blood Moon
- Hunter’s Moon
- Sanguine Moon
October’s Full Moon earned these monikers thanks to the traditional fall hunting season, when farmers would store meat for the upcoming winter months.
Around this time, the cold, crisp air really sets in, and the nights become darker. Many Wiccans use the Full Moon to focus on divination, communication with the dead, psychic development, and intuition.
Herbal magick is common during the Esbats, and Wiccans often concoct with herbs, spices, and plants. Cinnamon bark, sweet wormwood, squash leaves, basil, lavender, and rosemary are all common. Dark colors may be involved in rituals to symbolize the night, such as black, deep blues, and dark purples. Deep reds, oranges, browns, and dark greens may also be utilized to represent the harvest.
Historically, Samhain was an incredibly rich custom of incredible importance to the Celtic people. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, a lot of the tradition was lost or changed over time. Fortunately, however, the practice has never been forgotten. Despite not being Celtic in nature, modern Wiccans continue to keep these traditions alive.
Samhain may not be filled with as much mischief as was prevalent in Scotland, but Samhain still persists as a special time filled with immense spiritual power. It’s a great addition or complement to a modern Halloween celebration.
- Brown University: Origins in Samhain
- Time: What Is Samhain? What to Know About the Ancient Pagan Festival That Came Before Halloween
- Time: A Brief History of “Mischief Night”
- History: How Jack O’ Lanterns Originated in Irish Myth
- Beltane Fire Society: About Beltane Fire Festival
- Huffington Post: Samhain – Nature’s Holy Day for Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Learn Religions: Setting Up Your Samhain Altar
- Smithsonian Magazine: Halloween Owes its Tricks and Treats to the Ancient Celtic New Years’ Eve
- Boston Public Library: The Origins and Practice of Mabon