Samhain: The Witches’ New Year
In Gaelic, the Celtic language, the word Samhain (and variations of it) means “summer’s end”. The Celts divided the year up into two parts; the Winter Half, or Dark Half, and the Summer Half, or Light Half. Samhain was the advent of the Dark Half of the year.
The Celts considered day as starting with evening instead of midnight or morning, and so it was with the year. As the Celts recognized the beginning of the dark season, they celebrated their new year.
Many traditions of modern Witchcraft have roots in the Celtic cycle of the year, and Samhain – which coincides with Hallowe’en – is also known as the Witches’ New Year.
Samhain was one of four yearly Fire Festivals celebrated by the Druids of the Celtic lands. Each of these festivals lasted three days. They were celebrated on the seasonal turning points between equinoxes and solstices, also known as the cross-quarters.
During the Samhain festival, and at it’s seasonal polarity, Beltane, a single community fire was built on the top of a nearby hill. Once the fire was built all the hearth fires in family homes were let to go out so the flame could be rekindled from the shared fire. These were the only times during the year that hearth fires were extinguished.
On the final morning of the festival, the head of each household would take embers from the community fire and restart the fire in the family hearth.
In ancient Celtic tradition the day before Samhain was considered the last day of the old year, and the day after was considered the first day of the new year. Samhain itself was considered a time between times, a day between years, and a world between worlds. It was the time of the year where the veil between the world of spirit and the world of the living was believed to be thinnest.
The Celts believed that Samhain was a time when spirits of the dead and the not yet born, faeries, and other supernatural beings would walk among the living. During the three days of celebration people dressed in costumes to make the wandering spirits feel at home.
During this time the poor of the community were given license to beg for food in the guise of supernatural beings. Homesteaders, not wanting to bring disfavor upon themselves by acting selfishly, would feed the hungry spirits. In this way, the living and dead were fed on Samhain. It was believed that the ancestors would bring blessings to those who had been generous.
The Celts lived by strict rules, but during Samhain the usual rules were laid aside. Mischief was made, fortunes were told, and revels were had. Men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and bands of young people would wander for miles seeking food and drink from the farmsteads in return for the entertainment they offered.
This is where one of the American traditions of Hallowe’en came from. Trick-or-treating was once called mumming, and was a time where groups of people, adults and children alike, would go from door to door in costume singing, jesting and posing as spirits. The people they visited would offer treats such as soul cakes and cider in exchange for the entertainment, and in order to create goodwill with the spirits.
The closeness of the different worlds during Samhain made it an especially easy time to catch a glimpse of the future, and many would play games of divination on Samhain eve. Apple bobbing descended from one of these games.
Ancient people had an intimate relationship with death. With the coming on of the winter season, Samhain was a time of getting ready to face the possible losses that were to be expected. Samhain was considered the third, and last, harvest of the season. Called the Red Harvest, this harvest was the harvest of meat. Herds of livestock were culled; the weak and old animals were slaughtered, so that there would be enough food for the healthy livestock to survive the winter.
Some of the meat was salted, cured, and saved for winter. Some of the meat was eaten during the festival. Some of the meat, and all the bones, were burned on the bone-fire (possibly the origin of the word bonfire) in offering to the spirits. The bone ash was used to nourish the fields where crops would be grown the next year.
Jack-o-lanterns were originally carved from turnips and other tubers, and were made as a warding to keep unfriendly spirits, mischievous faeries and hungry souls from stopping over. The bonfires built on hilltops were there to light the way for the wandering dead, and to give them warmth and comfort in the darkness.
If loved ones had died in the previous year, family members would place a lighted candle in the window to lead the spirit home. The living would leave doors and windows unlatched, and set a place at the supper table for their beloved dead. The family would eat in silence in honor of the dead, from whom death had taken voice. This tradition lives on in many traditions of Witchcraft as the “dumb supper”, which is part of many ritual observances of the Witches’ New Year.
Modern American Traditions:
In the United States, many celebrate Halloween by dressing in costume, transforming ourselves into our dearest dreams or our scariest nightmares. We get to go out into the world as someone other than we usually are.
The tradition of mumming lives on in the guise of trick-or-treating. Though perhaps some of the artistry of the mummers plays has been lost along the way, trick-or-treating is still an opportunity to be out in the community with friends and family, sharing an experience with others of revelry with friends and strangers alike.
With some intention you can transform Halloween into a heartfelt and personal experience of the beauty of life and death.
This Halloween you, your family and friends could make an altar to your beloved dead. You could host a dumb supper. Or create a play with your friends and perform it at each house you visit on Halloween.
Or, perhaps the idea of giving generously at this time of year sounds good. With the help of a teacher in your school, you could set up a canned food drive for those in your community who do not have what they need to be warm and happy. It’s very likely, your ancestors will bless you for your acts of good will.
Recipes: Magickal Mulled Cider and Spirit Cakes
This Magickal Mulled Cider is made of apples, one of the most popular of traditional Halloween treats, and spices – which are full of magick! Listed below are some powers that certain spices are believed to have. However, this Witch believe it is also important to know that these powers change, sometimes from person to person.
The most important thing to remember when working magick of any kind, is that your intention (what you want to make happen) is the most important tool you have for any spell-working. So, as you work with this magickal recipe see if you can intuit what magickal properties each spice holds. To do this, hold spices in your hand one at a time, and let your body tell you what each one is good for.
You can also give something a meaning. This may be considered a superstition by many, but this Witch solidly believes that what you intend holds power. You can create meaning, a new reality even, just by Willing it to be so.
Here are some traditional powers the spices you will use today are believed to have:
- Cloves are considered helpful to those in mourning, and they bring prophecy and offer protection.
- Nutmeg brings dreams, vision and wealth.
- Cinnamon is good for strengthening magickal acts, bringing success, wealth and health, bringing the second sight – the sight of prophecy – and it warms the spirit and the body.
- Allspice is for strengthening a community.
- Ginger warms, energizes and purifies.
- Lemon is for purification.
- Orange is for love and vision.
If you hold the intention for it, this Magickal Cider will bring visions, comfort, warmth, health, wealth, love and a strong sense of community to all you share it with. It is great for a Halloween party, a Samhain night ritual, or anytime you feel the need for some warm, sweet magick.
Magickal Mulled Cider
Serves: Many revelers
1 gallon apple cider
3 cinnamon sticks for the pot,
Additional cinnamon sticks, one each per mug (optional)
1 Tablespoon whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or 1/8 teaspoon dry, powdered nutmeg
5 pieces whole allspice
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger, or 1/4 teaspoon dry, powdered ginger
1 pinch ground cinnamon per mug
1 tablespoon dried orange peel, or the peel of one fresh (ideally organic) orange
Pieces of fresh orange peel cut into stars and other shapes, one per mug (optional)
1 lemon, juiced and pulped
Large (6 Quart) saucepan
Small muslin spice bag, cheese cloth, or a tea strainer
Wooden mixing spoon
Mugs all around
1. Heat cider to a simmer in the sauce pan.
2. While cider heats, grate ginger and nutmeg onto plate.
3. If using fresh orange peel, cut peel into small pieces. (You can cut designs if you like. Stars, pumpkins, spirals, circles. Especially good for pieces to put into mugs.)
4. If you don’t like to have to strain the cider, put spices and peel into a spice bag, or tie in cheese cloth. (I prefer to leave the spices loose, and don’t mind straining. If you are the same, skip this step.)
5. Using your wooden spoon, mix the cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cinnamon sticks, cloves, nutmeg, orange peel, lemon juice and pulp into the cider.
6. Allow to simmer on medium-low heat for at least 1.5 hours.
7. Serve hot. Ladle into mugs, and place a fresh cinnamon stick (optional) and/or fresh piece of orange peel in each mug.
If the cider is too spicy, you can add more cider to water it down. If it’s not spicy enough for your tastes, add more of the seasonings you like most and simmer for longer.
These cakes are kind of sweet, kind of savory, kind of biscuit-like, and hearty. And they have lots of stories. One thing you can be sure of is that they will fill the tummies of hungry visitors, spirit and living alike.
All parts of this recipe are magick in some way. Here are a few of the magickal properties of some of the ingredients:
This recipe includes rosemary for remembrance and good will, and salt for cleansing, protection, and resurrection of the pure spirit. Oat is useful for increasing the wealth of your home, sustenance (a good thing for the coming darkness), and in lifting a bad mood (also good for those of us who experience low spirits in the darker part of the year). Wheat is for fertility, and is a wonderful way to recognize the relationship between life and death at this time of year as the seeds are plowed under in the fields, awaiting the springtime warmth to sprout and grow again.
Add spices at Will. What kind of magick do you want in these cakes? And, perhaps as importantly, which spices do you think would taste good? (Sometimes our more subtle senses know better than our conscious minds what is needed.) As with the cider recipe, feel your way into the magick of the spices you want to put into these cakes. Some ideas: cardamom, allspice, nutmeg, ginger,
While oat flour may not be the easiest to find, you can make it yourself by grinding oats (like the kind you make oatmeal with) in a food processor, coffee grinder (that you don’t grind coffee in!), or blender. Using different flours will offer a different type of cake. Whole wheat will be hearty, savory, and somewhat rough. Pastry flour will deliver a more light and delicate cake.
Mortar and pestle
Two large mixing bowls
One smaller bowl
Wooden mixing spoon
Electrical egg beater
Knife for cutting shapes into cakes, if desired
1.5 sticks of butter, softened
1 cup fine, granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
1 lb. flour; unbleached wheat, whole wheat, oat, or a mixture.
NOTE: The number of cups of flour will vary depending on flour used. 1 lb = 3 1/3 cups wheat or all purpose flour, or 5 cups oat flour. If you are mixing types of flour, a good mix would be 2 cups wheat or all-purpose to 2 cups oat.
1 pinch of salt
1 generous pinch of saffron
1 tablespoon half and half or cream
1 teaspoon of ground allspice, OR mixed spices.
1 teaspoon of fresh rosemary, finely chopped.
3 tablespoons currants (optional)
Milk to feel (explained later)
Extra butter for baking sheet
1. Set oven to 350ºF.
2. Crush saffron in mortar and pestle.
3. Add cream and mix with pestle, crushing saffron into the cream.
4. Let sit
5. In one of the mixing bowls, sift together the flour, salt and spices.
6. In the other mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. You may do so by hand, or with your egg beater.
7. In the smaller bowl, beat in the egg yolks until creamy.
8. Add the egg yolks to the sugar and butter bit by bit, whipping until smooth after each addition.
9. With your mixing spoon, fold the currants, flour, salt and spice combination into the egg, butter, cream and sugar mixture.
10. Add saffron/cream combination and mix it in.
11. Add milk bit by bit, to form a soft dough.
12. Divide into pieces and form into flat cakes of 1.5 – 2 inches in size.
13. Place on a buttered baking sheet.
14. If desired, gently cut designs into the top of cakes; stars, hearts, moons, spirals.
15. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden.
16. Allow to cool on cookie sheet for about then minutes, and then move to cookie rack.
And finally…from our family tradition;
Don’t forget to leave a treat out for the Pictsies on All Hallow’s Eve. They may be small, but they are mighty. It’s always good to know that the little guys have your back. So don’t forget to show them that you’ve got theirs. And in our family we have more than a minor interest in keeping the wee folks happy; we trace our lineage directly back to the slight and flight of foot, woad-covered, elusive, rebels of the old country.
In our family we leave out cream and cookies. Or, nice, fresh soul cakes.