At Samhain, they were appeased with offerings of food and drink, to ensure the people and their livestock survived the winter. The souls of dead kin were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality, and a place was set at the table for them during a Samhain meal.

Samhain is one of the major festivals of the Wheel of the Year, for many Pagans the most important festival of all. It is the third and final harvest festival of nuts and berries and a fire festival. All the harvest is in, all is complete, it is the end of the cycle of birth and growth, it is the point of death. The seeds of the harvest have fallen deep into the dark earth, they are unseen, dormant, and thus apparently lifeless.

The Celts celebrated eight Sabbats throughout the year, festivals that marked turning points in nature’s annual cycle, kind of like cheering in each new season while saying goodbye to the old one. Samhain was held October 31 to November 1, and it represented the start of winter and the end of the harvest year. It was seen as a beginning of darker days, longer nights, and reaping whatever resources had been grown in the year just gone (crops and livestock).

For the Celts, who lived during the Iron Age in what is now Ireland, Scotland, the U.K. and other parts of Northern Europe, Samhain (meaning literally, in modern Irish, “summer’s end”) marked the end of summer and kicked off the Celtic new year. Ushering in a new year signalled a time of both death and rebirth, something that was doubly symbolic because it coincided with the end of a bountiful harvest season and the beginning of a cold and dark winter season that would present plenty of challenges.

One of the major differences between Halloween and Samhain is the way the date is chosen. Halloween is based on a fixed date on the calendar. Samhain is halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstices, making it a seasonal celebration, one of the four based on the old Gaelic calendar.

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