All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and The Celtic Festival of Samhain


By T.V. Antony Raj


All Saints


All Saints’ Day, to honour the saints, falls on November 1, and the All Souls’ Day, the day to pray for the recently departed kith and kin, falls on November 2.

The word “Halloween” was first used by the Scottish around 1556 AD, as a variant of “All Hallows’ Even,” to mean the night before All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day.

The Celtic Festival of Samhain

Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter. (Psalm 74:16-17)

Even though the word Halloween has its origin from Christianity, according to some scholars it owes its origin to the pagan harvest festivals such as the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or to Parentalia, the festival of the dead or to the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Old Irish word for “summer’s end”.

The Gaelic festival of Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. It is celebrated from sunset of October 31 to sunset of November 1, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

In some Gaelic languages, Samhain is the word for November.

All Saints Day, introduced in the year 609 AD, was originally celebrated on May 13. In 1835, at the behest of Pope Gregory IV, it was changed to November 1, the same date as Samhain. Some suggest the change was due to Celtic influence in Christianity while others suggest it as a Germanic idea.

Some early Irish literature mention that many important events in their mythology happened on Samhain. The festival of Samhain observed in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Asturias and Galicia. Samhain, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh make up the four Gaelic seasonal festivals. The Gaelic (Irish, Scottish and Manx) also held kindred festivals at the same time of the year such as Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall) and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany).


Samhain Ritual
Samhain Ritual


During Samhain, the Gaelic took stock, readied for the cold winter ahead, brought the cattle back down from the summer pastures, slaughtered livestock, lit bonfires, enacted rituals along with divination games. As a cleansing ritual, they would walk with their livestock between two bonfires, cast the bones of slaughtered livestock into its flames.


All Souls' Day night vigil
All Souls’ Day night vigil


The Gaelic believed, that during Samhain, the door to the Otherworlds or realms of supernatural beings and the dead, opened just enough for the souls of the dead and other weird entities, to enter our world. They beckoned souls of the dead kin to attend the feast by setting a place at the table for them. It has thus been likened to a festival of the dead. Lewis Spence in his book “The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain” described it as a “feast of the dead” and “festival of the fairies.”

Divination also took place during Samhain. The tradition says that in places like Asturias, “Güestia,” a group of spirits from the world of the dead, go out that night, walking in the forests and on roads. People drew circles on the floor and remained within those circles until the spirits passed them.




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