The Samhain celebrations have survived in several guises as a festival dedicated to the harvest and the dead. In Ireland and Scotland, the Féile na Marbh, the 'festival of the dead' took place on Samhain.
The night of Samhain, in Irish, Oíche Shamhna and Scots Gaelic, Oidhche Shamhna, is one of the principal festivals of the Celtic calendar, and falls on the 31st of October. It represents the final harvest. In modern Ireland and Scotland, the name by which Halloween is known in the Gaelic language is still Oíche/Oidhche Shamhna. It is still the custom in some areas to set a place for the dead at the Samhain feast, and to tell tales of the ancestors on that night.
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.
Samhain is the tradition that gave rise to our current day celebrations of Halloween. Samhain (pronounced: sow-en) is a pagan holiday that is celebrated on October 31. It marks the end of Summer and the beginning of Winter.
In the past, Samhain was a festival for the time between the old year and the new year. It was a time for having bonfires and playing tricks. It was also thought a time when people could make contact with departed loved ones and foretell the future.
Today some people have special ceremonies on this day. Some people have parties and other people have special dinners.
One interesting dinner dish is called Colcannon. This dish is made of potatoes and cabbage. Items are put in the dish that are thought to tell the future. Traditionally these items are a thimble (for a spinster), a button (for a bachelor), a ring (for a marriage), and a coin (for prosperity).
The following recipe for a Samhain dish:
4 cups mashed potatoes, 2 - 1/2 cups cabbage (cooked and chopped
fine), 1/2 cup butter, 3/4 cup onion (chopped very fine and sautéed), 1/4
teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper
Blend all ingredients (except cabbage) over low heat.
Turn the heat to medium and add cabbage (will be slightly green).
Stir occasionally until warm then add fortune items. Stir well.
Some people use decorations for their ceremonies or dinners. Fun things to use for decorating are autumn leaves or flowers, pumpkins, gourds, and autumn fruits and nuts. Candles also make pretty decorations for Samhain.