The Celtic Holiday Samhain: The Time of the Thin Veil
This post explores the roots of modern Halloween and the Celtic holiday known as Samhain (said sow-when). This time is also known as the time of the thin veil. Read on to learn more about the end of summer and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
1888, from Irish samhain (Gaelic samhuinn), from Old Irish samain, literally “summer’s end,” from Old Irish sam “summer” (see summer (n.1)) + fuin “end.” Nov. 1, the Celtic festival of the start of winter and of the new year. Etymology Online
Halloween in a modern holiday with deep roots going back to ancient, pre-Christian times in Europe. The days that mark the mid-point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice were known as the feast of Samhain. It marked the end of the summer and the beginning of the Celtic New Year. Ancient Celts celebrated this change in season with bonfires, costuming, and storytelling. It is one of 8 Celtic Feast Days, each marking the changing of the seasons.
They believed that at this time spirits walked the earth as the door between the worlds was open. During celebrations participants dressed in animal costumes and made their faces up to look like deceased relatives. Much as today, it was a time of great mischief. To learn more, read this history from National Geographic.
Celtic Holiday Samhain: What are Celtic Feast Days?
There are/were eight Celtic feast days. They are marked by the Sun’s relationship to the Earth in a manner that caused the seasons to shift. They are the Quarter Days of Solstice and Equinox. Then there are the Cross-Quarter Days (mid-way between solstice and equinox). These eight feast days profoundly marked the changing seasons in the British Isles: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. The Cross-Quarter Days were potent times of celebration and ritual. Most of them carry over into modern holidays. I find these days to be central to my seasonal life.
- Imbolc – Groundhogs Day
- Beltane – May Day
- Lughnasadh – The first harvest, the universal time of vacation and sunbathing
- Samhain – Halloween
The Thin Veil Between Worlds at the Feast of Samhain
“Life is full of magnetic interims that call what is separate and different to become one, to enter into the art and presence of belonging.” ― John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes
Riverbanks, graveyards, ancient trees, desert canyons. Such are places where I have felt the slipstream of time, the pulse of the earth, the clear sound of my whispering soul.
Do you know such places?
These thin spaces are sometimes remote, often mundane. I have felt such intimations standing by my sleeping child’s bedside, holding my husband’s hand in the middle of the night, listening to the tears track down the face of a dear friend. I have known them at the fireside while camping with my family as a child. The first memorable experience of a thin space is during Catholic Mass as a very young child.
Mid-Autumn also holds this experience for me. Long night and the slant-light of short days evoke a kind of somnolence. It’s nor wonder cultures around the world celebrate the dead this time of year. They seem to be so very close at hand.
“[Thin places] are locals where the distance between heaven and earth collapse and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.” Eric Weiner, NYT
I try to allow these thin spaces to emerge on my farm, and use these spots of micro-wilderness to hold me when I am confused, hurt, miss my Dad or my adult children. Personally sacred, I protect these spaces and consecrate them with my regular visits.
The end of October, Halloween, and mid-autumn are said to be a time where these thin spaces become even more so…more permeable, easily felt, accessible. In folklore and myth, we hear ghost stories and of time travel. It is worth reflecting on the phrase as without, so within…as above, so below.
This time of year that the ancient Celts called Samhain is also a time when the internal veil is thin. Our hard minds are touched by the soft underbelly of the soul. Melancholy is close. The rawness of the human experience made fragile by the recognition that death keeps us all equal is palpable. At its best, this is a time of year when we can dance with the mystery of our small place in the larger human story and feel ourselves revealed.
Other times and cultures that celebrate this time of the thin veil…
Halloween in modern America is an interesting conflagration of Christian and pre-Christian rituals. The word Halloween actually means the eve of the hallowed, and refers to it being the night before All Saints Day, All Hallow’s Eve. The word was first used by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in his poem, Halloween.
The Catholic Church, as it Christianized the British Isles and the lands of the Celts, moved its feast day celebrating martyrs from mid-May to November 1. By this time the Gregorian Calendar helped people track the days of the year, and Samhain was celebrated on October 31. The ancient practices that marked Samhain moved into Halloween, and these new Christian people then celebrated the Saints and martyrs on November 1 and all souls on November 2. A very convoluted story about the church moving the martyr’s feast day from May to November, and its links to the Roman feast day of the dead, called Lemuria is intriguing. You can read all about that here.
Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead
Unlike Samhain and its dark undertones of rising dead and ghosts, the Mexicans celebrate their dead with festivals of joy in early November. It is a similar recognition of the thin spaces of space and self, but with a completely different cultural expression. The highlight of the celebration is elaborate picnics at the grave sites of relatives with seasonal foods specific to the holiday. You can read more here.
4 Ways to Celebrate Samhain and the Thin Spaces this Year
- The Contemplative Nature Walk – a simple practice of centering in silence as you walk in the woods, considering a question or concern.
- Mandala Making with Natural and Found Objects – I often use the energies of celestial and seasonal events to create a mandala using natural and found objects that symbolize the issues at hand. A mandala, an ancient symbol of wholeness, is created through concentric circles of symbols that reflect our current state of mind. To see examples, click here.
- A Healing Practice I Learned During My Time at Naropa University – this practice is one of Thanksgiving and insight based on time spent in communion with nature and her spirit(s). I love this practice and use it every time there is an issue haunting me that seeks release.
- A Bonfire Celebration in keeping with the ancient’s way of celebrating the feast day.
I hope you find time to safely explore the thin spaces that exist in nature, your heart, and your mind. The time of the thin veil: Samhain is a potent time of insight and deep connection. It is potent with the possibility of healing.
Oh, and this is also a good time for an archetypal astrology reading. Click here for more information!
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