Samhain is sometimes referred to as the Witches’ New Year, and it is from here that the Wheel of the Year is traditionally counted. It marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter, or the dark half of the year. It is seen as a festival of darkness and death (in that it celebrates those who have passed) and is countered on the Wheel by Beltane which is the Spring festival of light and fertility.
In the Southern Hemisphere, Samhain in celebrated from the 30th of April through to the 1st of May, and in the Northern Hemisphere it falls on the 31st of October to 1st of November which is now also known as Halloween. The night between these days are considered a time where the veil between the worlds (our world and the Otherworld) is the thinnest and spirits or fae can pass more easily into our world. Because of this, communication with ancestors or spirits is a common divination practice during Samhain.
In Celtic mythology this was a time to feast and celebrate the dead by inviting ancestors to attend through setting places for them at the table or by the bonfire. Offerings were made to the spirits of the dead to help protect people and livestock through the harsh winter months. The practice of 'mumming' where you dressed in a costume or disguise and went door to door reciting verses in exchange for food in an imitation of the spirits was believed to bless you and hide you from the spirits. Candles and lanterns were also lit to guide spirits home or protect from darker entities. These traditions can still be seen in the modern Halloween festivities.
Celebrations of Samhain are filled with Autumn colours from leaves and wreaths, to gourds and jack-o-lanterns. Feasts for the dead are punctuated with fire, sparklers or even fireworks to bid farewell to the old year and welcome the new.
Carrying iron in your pockets (such as a nail) is common practice to protect against the fae, especially on Samhain. The fae are said to be repelled by iron. Other practices include wearing your clothes inside out or carrying bread to either deter or to bribe fairies. Offerings to the kinder fae are also made by leaving out milk and honey for them.
Apples have a strong association with Samhain as a food of the Underworld and as the apple harvest comes to an end in May. From drinking apple cider and apple bobbing at feasts, to burying an apple as an offering to the spirits, there are a multitude of rites and rituals you can perform. Peeling an apple can give you insight to your length of life, or throw the peel over your shoulder to form the initial of your true love.
However you celebrate Samhain, gather family or close friends, enjoy good food and spare a thought for those who have gone before. Close off the old year by completing tasks you have put off, and set your goals for the new year.