Samhain: Halloween, Cross-Quarter Days and The Wheel of the Year
What is "Samhain"?
One of the additional patches in the "Hallows Angels" patch set is the scarecrow-themed "Sons Of Samhain". But what, you may be asking, is Samhain?
Paraphrasing Wikipedia, Samhain is the name of a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year (shorter days). Loosely translated, it means "summer's end".
Cross-Quarter Days and the Wheel Of The Year
Pronounced "sah-when", Samhain is one of four "cross-quarter days" on the calendar, dates which mark the midpoints between an Equinox and a Solstice point. Samhain/Halloween marks the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice.
I stumbled upon the Celtic concept of Cross-Quarter Days (or the "Wheel of the Year") when discovering that my February 2nd birthday was a holiday of sorts — “Candlemas” to the Christian religion and “Imbolc” to the Celts.
(Technically, Samhain (as far as being a cross-quarter day) occurs around November 7th in the Northern Hemisphere these days. Check out this page for more in-depth info. )
In short, the ancients saw the Solstices and Equinoxes as fulcrums of a season, not boundaries. Boundary dates were instead these Cross-Quarter Days:
“Unlike modern calendars that define the start of a season on a Solstice or Equinox, the Celts perceived Solstices and Equinoxes as events occuring mid-season, with the seasons actually beginning and ending on the Cross Quarters. Thus, Imbolc was the beginning of Spring. Imbolc corresponds more or less to Groundhog Day in the USA, February 2…”
“Perhaps the Celtic perception of the seasonal calendar harmonizes best with nature. Should Summer’s arrival really mark a time of year when daytime just gets shorter and shorter? Is it logical for days to only lengthen throughout Winter? It seems to contradict our perception of what these seasons are, or is it just a mid-Summer’s night dream of mine? The Celts believed major transitional days — Solstices and Equinoxes — should be enveloped by the time of year they signify, not stand for mere boundary markers! Celtic calendar keepers favored the Cross Quarters as bookends for every season under the sun.” —via archaeoastronomy.com
Halloween/Samhain thus holds a different significance when viewed from this perspective. Being the beginning of the Winter season, the focus on the dead, spirits and such makes more sense. Winter is truly when the natural world seems to “die”, and this roughly begins around October 31 and begins to end around February 2.
The Ghosts of Christmas
This also ties into some other interesting research that came up as an offshoot of looking into these Cross-Quarter Days — the Ghosts of Christmas in the classic Scrooge tale in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. And you also hear mention of “scary ghost stories” in a popular Christmas song, and many Christmas songs are in minor keys (the spooky-sounding musical keys) which I always found a bit odd. It seems ghost stories at Christmas is a tradition that has long fell out of use, and this was the case at Dickens’ time as well — it seems he was attempting to revive the custom. As perhaps was the BBC with their yearly broadcast of ghost stories at Christmas. And this might help explain the concept of Krampus, the demon companion to Santa/St. Nick!
When seen from the perspective that Samhain/Halloween, Christmas and Imbolc/Candlemas/Grounghog’s Day all form the season “Winter”, it makes sense to have the first half — from Halloween to Christmas — be focused on the “darker” aspects (since the length of daylight wanes to it’s nadir at the Winter Solstice), and then the latter half from Christmas (or "Yule") to Imbolc/Groundhog's Day signifying the “rebirth” and life-affirming aspects, since the length of days have begun once again to lengthen after the Winter Solstice. An ideal time to demarcate a New Year.
I wouldn’t doubt those clever Celts actually celebrated the start of the New Year on the day after the Winter Solstice. The day when the days start growing in daylight.
Samhain: Summed up
In short, Samhain is the end of Summer, the beginning of Winter, and the calendrical mid-point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. The observance of this annual experience has come down to us in the form of the celebration of Halloween, the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), and many other curiously similar-themed observance days from around the world.
In future updates, I'll be digging into the origins of the word "Halloween", as well as share some interesting theories on perhaps why there is such a heavy focus on death and dying near October 31 by cultures and civilizations from around the world, as well as deep into the past…
"Stingy Jack" and the origin of the Jack O' Lantern
The traditions of the Irish and Scottish play a big role in the symbology of Halloween, and I'll be digging into what the phrase "Stingy Jack" means, and how it ties into the Jack O' Lantern in the next backer update.