Primer: Samhain

Samhain bonfire.jpg
As Halloween draws near, let’s not forget the Reason for the Season.  
Samhain (SAH-win) is a Celtic festival that falls halfway between the fall equinox and winter solstice, marking the end of the harvest season.  In this liminal space, lines between this world and the next were blurred and spirits could pass through the veil.  Samhain was a holiday of food, alcohol, bonfires, contests… and slaughter.  Meat would keep in the chill of the winter and live animals were expensive to care for when the pastures were frozen over, so Samhain was the best time for mass butchering and freezing.  
Later in the day, bonfires were set to mimic the power of the sun.  Cow bones from the slaughter were thrown on the bonfire and the whole community would gather around, breathing in the cleansing smoke and jumping through the cinders.  Some people blackened their faces with ashes.  Each member of the community would light a torch from the communal fire and return home to light their hearths with it, making Samhain a festival of community and bonding.  
During Samhain, the spirits of the dead rose to commune with their families.  Extra tables settings were placed, and anything that looked like a spirit arriving at the door would be fed heartily like a member of the family.  The less well-off members of society crossdressed or wore strange masks and costumes (or just wore their soot-covered faces from the bonfire) and went door to door, impersonating good spirits and collecting dinners.  To ward off evil spirits, lanterns (hollowed-out turnips with carved faces) were set on windowsills.  One traditional costume is the Láir Bhán, where a man covers himself in a white sheet and parades around with a decorated horse skull — it seems like our modern Halloween ghost costume has lost the eccentric flair of the Celts.
In the last few hundred years, scandalized Christians and a diminishing number of pagans led to Samhain’s merger with the Christian holiday All Saint’s Day, resulting in the fairly secular orange-and-black excuse to get drunk we call Halloween.  While we have the costumes and the soliciting for snacks, I definitely propose that this year we try dancing around giant bonfires, begging for entire free dinners, and running around with horse heads.
-Rachel Hsu