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Samhain/Hallowe’en in the UK

Until late in the last century the only people who celebrated this Festival in the UK were the Pagans. Commercialisation in the form of specific sweets, costumes, and trick or treating was unknown until the end of the late 1980’s when TV programs and films showed the way Halloween was celebrated in the United States and the UK population began to emulate it.

Samhain, a corruption of the Celtic “Sam Huen” meaning “Summers End” was celebrated in the British Isle by the Celts that migrated from Europe from about 500 BCE until the Romans invaded. Their system of counting days was from sundown to sundown with the evening marking the beginning of a new day. This seems to have been extended to the way they saw the year too, with the shortening day length marking the beginning of a new year. This time between one year and the next was considered a “between time” when the veil between this existence and the Otherworld was thinnest and the spirits of the dead – and other entities – could come through. Particularly if they were invited.

This was also the time of the last harvest when all the animal stocks were thinned down to small breeding stocks that could survive the winter on the limited amount of feed. The resultant glut of meat was preserved by drying, making into pemmican (mixing with fat and berries), salting, chilling in deep lakes, and any other method to keep this valuable source of protein viable for as long as possible. The meat that could not be preserved was eaten as part of the last feast before the times of potential shortages began.

During the Roman occupation these traditions were continued, albeit in a modified form until they withdrew in about 400 ACE, and through the various waves of colonisation and occupation. Mainly because the tribes came from Europe where the Celts had left a strong heritage. Britain had a Christian presence thanks to the latter days of the Romans but this was mainly in the small urban areas whereas the countryside was still firmly Pagan.

With the Norman invasion in 1066 ACE and the start of their program of stone church building it might be thought that the traditions of Samhain might fade, but the Sheila-na-gigs in the decorations, along with the Green Man hidden in the roof bosses showed how entrenched Paganism was. This was particularly true of the Norman nobility as Gerald Gardener mentioned in some of his writings about the ‘Witches’ seen at the Battle of Hastings and several other major engagements of the Norman campaign.

The covert Paganism at the upper end of the social scale, and the more open practices in the country meant that Samhain continued to be celebrated, although some of the origins of the practices had been lost and others put in their place. To some extent, this is when the difference between Ritual Magic and Pagan Craft started to happen. This, more than Martin Luthers’ nailing his proclamation to Wittenburg Castle church door on 31 October 1517, or King Henry the Eighths’ declaring himself head of the English church, started to water down some of the traditional celebrations.

The biggest division of the celebration of Samhain came on November 5th 1605 when a man called Guido “Guy” Fawkes ‘took the fall’ for a group that failed to destroy the opening of Parliament by the King. His death paralleled the death of the assassin in place of the person he was supposed to kill that went back to the times of Pagan Lore and laws. The next year the day of this event was marked with bonfires and burning in effigy of the late Mr. Fawkes. Gradually the more raucous aspect of the celebration of Samhain migrated over to what became known as “Guy Fawkes’ Night”.

What developed into ‘mischief night’ and later ‘trick or treat’ in the US was sublimated in the UK into the hurley-burley of Guy Fawkes, particularly after the introduction of fireworks into the celebrations. As this celebration increased in popularity Samhain dwindled and was more remembered for the Christian celebrations places around it, such as Saint’s Day, than the ancient ceremonies they replaced. Pagan and other Craft groups kept the remembrance of the Old Ways, but the general population concentrated on “Fireworks Night” as it was also called.

With the resurgence of neo-Paganism in the middle of the last century Samhain was slowly restored to general consciousness, but it took Films and TV to bring it to the level of secular popularity it holds today. Hopefully the inner meanings will become more popular as Pagans disclose more about their spiritual path, but the fun aspects will also remain.
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Content copyright © 2018 by Ian Edwards. All rights reserved.
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