Samhain (or /ˈsɑːwɪn/; Irish /ˈsˠaunʲ/ from the Old Irish samain) is the word for November in a few Gaelic languages. The Scottish Gaelic spelling is Samhainn or Samhuinn (for the feast), or an t-Samhain (for the month). The Festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, and is generally regarded as 'The Celtic New Year'. The same word was used for a month in the ancient Celtic calendar, in particular the first three nights of this month, with the festival marking the end of the summer season and the end of the harvest. A modernized version of this festival continues today in some of the traditions of the Catholic All Souls' Day, the secular Halloween, and in folk practices of Samhain itself in the Celtic Nations and the Irish and Scottish diasporas. It is also observed by various types of Neopagans.
In medieval Ireland, Samhain became the principal festival, celebrated with a great assembly at the royal court in Tara, lasting for three days. After being ritually started on the Hill of Tlachtga, a bonfire was set alight on the Hill of Tara, which served as a beacon, signaling to people gathered atop hills all across Ireland to light their ritual bonfires. The custom has survived to some extent, and recent years have seen a resurgence in participation in the festival.
Traditionally, Samhain was time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter. This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock.
Bonfires played a large part in the festivities celebrated down through the last several centuries, and up through the present day in some rural areas of the Celtic nations and the diaspora. Villagers were said to have cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. In the pre-Christian Gaelic world, cattle were the primary unit of currency and the center of agricultural and pastoral life. Samhain was the traditional time for slaughter, for preparing stores of meat and grain to last through the coming winter. The word 'bonfire', or 'bonefire' is a direct translation of the Gaelic tine cnámh. With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit its hearth from the common flame, thus bonding the families of the village together. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes the cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires, as well.
Divination is a common folkloric practice that has also survived in rural areas. The most common uses were to determine the identity of one's future spouse, the location of one's future home, and how many children a person might have. Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often employed in these rituals. Apples were peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of the future spouse's name. Nuts were roasted on the hearth and their movements interpreted - if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in a glass of water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from how many birds appeared or the direction the birds flew.
The other cycles feature Samhain as well. The Cath Maige Tuireadh (Battle of Mag Tuired) takes place on Samhain. The deities Morrígan and Dagda meet and have sex before the battle against the Fomorians; in this way the Morrígan acts as a sovereignty figure and gives the victory to The Dagda's people, the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The tale The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn includes an important scene at Samhain. The young Fionn Mac Cumhail visits Tara where Aillen the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, puts everyone to sleep at Samhain and burns the place. Through his ingenuity Fionn is able to stay awake and slays Aillen, and is given his rightful place as head of the fianna.
Whitley Stokes in KZ 40:245 (1907) suggests an etymology from Proto-Celtic *samani ('assembly'), cognate to Sanskrit sámana, and the Gothic samana. J. Vendryes in Lexique Étymologique de l'Irlandais Ancien (1959) concludes that these words containing *semo- ('summer') are unrelated to samain, remarking that furthermore the Celtic 'end of summer' was in July, not November, as evidenced by Welsh gorffennaf ('July'). We would therefore be dealing with an Insular Celtic word for 'assembly', *samani or *samoni, and a word for 'summer', saminos (derived from *samo-: 'summer') alongside samrad, *samo-roto-. The Irish samain would be etymologically unrelated to 'summer', and derive from 'assembly'. But note that the name of the month is of Proto-Celtic age, cf. Gaulish SAMON[IOS] from the Coligny calendar, and the association with 'summer' by popular etymology may therefore in principle date to even pre-Insular Celtic times.
Confusingly, Gaulish Samonios (October/November lunation) corresponds to GIAMONIOS, the seventh month (the April/May lunation) and the beginning of the summer season. Giamonios, the beginning of the summer season, is clearly related to the word for winter, Proto-Indo-European *g'hei-men- (Latin hiems, Slavic zima, Greek kheimon, Hittite gimmanza), cf. Old Irish gem-adaig ('winter's night'). It appears, therefore, that in Proto-Celtic the first month of the summer season was named 'wintry', and the first month of the winter half-year 'summery', possibly by ellipsis, '[month at the end] of summer/winter', so that samfuin would be a restitution of the original meaning. This interpretation would either invalidate the 'assembly' explanation given above, or push back the time of the re-interpretation by popular etymology to very early times indeed.
Bealtaine, Lúnasa and Samhain are still today the names of the months of May, August and November in the Irish language. Similarly, an Lùnasdal and an t-Samhain are the modern Scottish Gaelic names for August and November.
According to Celtic lore, Samhain is a time when the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead become thinner, at times even fading away completely, allowing spirits and other supernatural entities to pass between the worlds to socialize with humans. It is the time of the year when ancestors and other departed souls are especially honored. Though Celtic Reconstructionists make offerings to the spirits at all times of the year, Samhain in particular is a time when more elaborate offerings are made to specific ancestors. Often a meal will be prepared of favorite foods of the family's and community's beloved dead, a place set for them at the table, and traditional songs, poetry and dances performed to entertain them. A door or window may be opened to the west and the beloved dead specifically invited to attend. Many leave a candle or other light burning in a western window to guide the dead home. Divination for the coming year is often done, whether in all solemnity or as games for the children. The more mystically inclined may also see this as a time for deeply communing with the deities, especially those whom the lore mentions as being particularly connected with this festival.
While the Wiccan version of Samhain is not a form of reconstruction, and is largely mixed with other traditions in a form of universalism, it is influenced by the Celtic holiday from which the name was taken.
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