Oidhche Shamhna is one of the principal festivals of the Celtic calendar and falls on October 31st. It represents the final harvest and even in modern Ireland and Scotland it’s the name by which Halloween is known. Historically, the festival marked the end of the season for trade and warfare and was an ideal date for tribal/clan gatherings. Samhuinn (Scottish Gaelic)/Samhain (Irish Gaelic) is pronounced “sow-in.” Here’s an audio file on the pronunciation of samhain. “An t-Samhain” is also the Scottish Gaelic name for November.
Many Celts believe that Oidhche Shamhna is a gap in time…a thinning of the veil separating our world and the otherworld…when the dead can return to the places where they had lived. One of the traditions still practised today is to set a place for the dead at the Samhain feast and to tell tales of the ancestors on that night. It’s not a creepy party with skeletons and gory decoration (like in the US), but instead a festive evening that honors the memory of those family members and friends that have gone before.
Another fun tradition is hollowing out large turnips, carving faces on them, inserting a candle, and and placing them in windows to ward off evil spirits. Sound familiar? I haven’t yet found a large enough turnip in my local grocery store to try it out. Maybe I’ll have to grow some for next year and add a growth additive to get some really big ones! Here’s a link to find out how to make your own.
For a lot more historical information, read Catriona’s blog posting from Samhain 2010.