Samhain, celebrated October 31, is the third and last harvest festival. The themes of this holiday are the beginning of the winter season, the re-making of the world and the return of the spirits to the world of the living.
Known also as the Calend of winter, Samhain marks the beginning of the winter season, a change that had impact on our ancestor’s life. Because the sustenance of Celtic populations came mostly from agriculture and livestock, the beginning of winter marked the end of the work on the fields: the harvest had been reaped, the animals had been brought home to the safety of their sheds and those who went to pasture with the animals came back home too. The festival of Samhain was held after all this work had been done and it was believed bad luck to harvest after the festival.
To the Celts the alternation of light and dark had a profound symbolic meaning. The year was divided into two halves: the light began with Beltane, the dark with Samhain. The gap of time during which the celebrations takes place are a “time out of time”: because they are boundaries, they are both within this world and outside of it. This is the mythic time during which the world is destroyed and remade. Chaos prevails only to be followed by the re-creation of the world:
“during this interval the normal order of the universe is suspended, the barriers between the natural and the supernatural are temporarily removed, the sídh lies open and all the divine beings and the spirits of the dead move freely among human beings and interfere, sometimes violently, in their affairs”
The belief in the return of the spirits are reflected in the customs of the feast. The dumb supper, for example, survived up to the 20th century: food would be left out for the ancestors who walked the land during the night. An offering of corn or potatoes might also be left outside the house to the fairies, to propitiate good luck and a good harvest for the incoming year. Going out during the night was deemed inappropriate, as fairies fly from mound to mound and one could be snatched by them. Those brave enough to go outside disguised themselves, as Scotland costume demonstrates: masked and often with faces painted black, young men went around causing mischief during the night.
Celtic Mythology by Proinsias MacCana, pp. 127-128
Celtic Mythology by Proinsias MacCana
Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton
Celtic Heritage by A. Rees and B. Rees