9 Actual Samhain Customs You Can Do

Samhain, the first day of winter, means Summer's end in Irish. It is the third of three harvests. This holiday so definitively concludes the harvest, that picking certain berries and things after Samhain is seen as stealing from the spirits, elves, and little people. The púca spit on blackberries to blight them (Danaher 200). Samhain is traditionally on November 1st or the 14th depending on if you factor calendrical drift from gregorian v julian calendar shifts.

Photo of Irish Wake Traditions, some of them shared with Samhain

Samhain starts on Oiche Shamhna, or the Night of Summer's End. This means the Irish viewed sunset on Oct 31st to be the conclusion of summer, the next day starting just after the light of the sun can be seen. It is also called Sean-Shamhain. In local parts of Ireland it has different names like oiche na sprideanna or Spirit night, Puca night, Snap-apple night, November Day, and November Eve (200).

In Gaul it was called Trinouxtion Samonii, meaning Three Nights of the End of Summer, which implied the celebration extended over three days. Alexei Kondratiev considers it an “abandonment of the activities and attitudes that chcaractersize that [samos]  half [of the year].” (Kondratiev 112). We enter the giamos mode of the year, a resting, contemplative state. The subconscious mirrors the year. Winter deconstructs cosmos so that renewal can happen. Contemplative efforts bring us back to childhood before ego, identity and rationalization took hold.

It is believed that the fairies visited every plant in every part of the land to give them a winter blast (Danaher 200). The crops were taken in before this date and the animals were slaughtered (Kondratiev 121). Bloodletting as an offering to the spirits and Land was an important tradition, as an offering to secure fertility (123). And though bird was common, pig was the most traditional meal on Martinmas Eve Nov 11, the traditional date for Samhain pre Gregorian calendar useage.

Tuathánaigh, or farmers, had to secure their livestock, their food, and health for the coming winter. All the corn, hay, potatoes, turnips, apples, and the like must be put away and stored, or made into things that can be consumed or preserved (Danaher 206). The winter’s wood needs to be gathered and spit. Just like michaelmas, the remaining rents, debts and selling fairs were held as is customary for any harvest time.

Folks believed the inhabitants of the otherworld were busy at their work as well, moving about the land. Folks were ready to encounter a headless apparition called dallachán, fairies, a black pig, puca, white deer, and the like. It is believed these beings, often called hobgoblins, are at “high revel” (207).

In my modern practice, I consider Samhain to be from Samhain night to All Souls day. I roll in the all souls day practices into Samhain itself as it would have been there to begin with. On All Souls Day, or Nov 2nd, is when the dead visit, more so than on Oiche Shamhna.

1. Make Offerings, Light Candles, Feast With, and Set Place for the Dead

In Ireland, food offerings were made outside of doors (Danaher 200). You can also leave a plate out for the fair folk or the dead. Some traditions place these on walls, thresholds, pillars among other places. The two first plates of champ and mash were placed on top of a pier or pillar for the dead or the fairies as an offering (Evans 103).

Candles were lit, often one per deceased relative in the window where they died, in windows facing graveyards, and upon graves themselves to be left burning all night (Danaher 201). Doors and windows were left open or unlatched as an invitation to deal loved ones (Kondratiev 117). The Slua or Host would process through the tribe, each of the dead stopping at the house of their kin, entering and sharing in the celebrations with their living family. It was forbidden that the living touch the food set aside for the dead. Anyone who ate it, would be barred from receiving their portion when they were dead (Evans 118). At the end of the Harvest period, the fair folk are no longer compelled to comply by the gods of the tribe (Kondratiev 114). It is for this reason they can cause mischief to humans, especially those with whom they don't have good relations.

The floor would be swept, a good fire lit in the hearth, the family goes to bed earlier than usual, leaving the door unlatched and a bowl of spring water was left on the table. This was “so that anyone who had died may find a place prepared for him at his own fireside.” (Danaher 228). In some places, fire tools were placed on the hearthstone and a place was set for each of the familial departed. Candles in the windows, doorways, on tombstones and elsewhere were used while praying, left to burn for the departed, and were extinguished or left to burn.

When the dead returned, though, they were seated around a fire. Their places were set around a fire and when food was left out for the fairies, it was also placed in front of a fire (Evans 89).

2. Solicit the Help of Spirits

People trying to solicit the help of spirits would find a briar that was rooted on two ends and crawl under it while making their request… usually magical powers (Danaher 203).

3. Bless Animals

Holy water was sprinkled on animals that night (Danaher 200). People did apotropaic folk magics to protect their homes and animals. A cross of plain wood would be placed over the door inside or on the ground outside, holy water would be sprinkled across the threshold, and spit on animals thought to be plagued with illness by spirits (Danaher 203).

4. Avoid Being 'Led'

Folks could be fairy led, or led astray on this night. To avoid this they’d carry a black-handled knife, or have a steel needle stuck in his coat collar or sleeve, or by turning their coat inside out (207). If you do run into the fairies, you can throw dirt from under your feet at them, they’ll be obliged to release you or anyone in your company. If you throw out water you are supposed to yell out “Seachan!” which means beware, or “chughaibh an t-uisce!” which means “water towards you.” This is especially if you throw out water on the west side of buildings where fairies process.

5. Make Samhain Crosses

Parshells, or halloween crosses, are 7 inch crosses with a piece of straw woven under one arm then over the next (208). Each Samhain, the one above the door would be moved elsewhere like the barn or another room and the new one would be placed over the door. Oatmeal and salt are placed on the heads of children for protection in Wales.

6. Kindle Bonfires

Bonfires are the ancient traditional way to bless a place from the ills of evil and mischievous spirits. Then, when the fires were burned down, the embers would be cast about, or thrown at the participant's like a snowball fight.

Most of the Samhain effort was a focus on rekindling all the hearths of the country from the king's fire. This was done mainly by carrying embers in lanterns made from turnips, we now call them jack-o-lanterns. The sovereignty of the tribe was renewed in this manor (Kondratiev 114). This fire most likely would last 6 months as fires were smoored and rekindled in homes but rarely put out. Thus the kings fire would remain until the next renewal period.

7. Make, Eat, and Give out Treats

Feast, cream pancakes, stampy, apple cakes, nuts and black-berry pies, ducking for apples were popular for the gatherings (Danaher 202).

Stampy are cakes made from raw potato, flour, sugar, caraway seeds and cream. They’re called boxty when made with mashed cooked potato (204).

Colcannon, also called ‘champ’ or ‘pandy’, is made of potatoes boiled and mashed, mixed with green cabbage that has been cooked, raw onions chopped, sprinkled with pepper and salt (204).

Snacking on fruits, treats, nuts and things was widely practiced as the availability of these things increased (205).

8. Play Tricks, Beg for Treats

Interesting enough, some Irish wake customs are also practiced at Samhain. Irish wakes involved games if the person died of natural causes or old age. These involved storytelling, riddle making, tongue twisting, ceilidh, horse play, racing, practical jokes, to formal games like hurley and others (214).

Folks in costumes were called Vizards, Hugadais, Buachaillí Tuí and most commonly Guisers (214). Costume wearing goes back to at least traditional Christian Ireland. We can safely assume, since we don’t know when it originated, that it is wholly Irish as a cultural custom and is wrote with paganism.

Disguises are meant to create a maddening and scary atmosphere. However some of the guisery involved dressing as the opposite gender. In Wales these young folks were called gwrachod: hags or witches. This was usually socially alarming behavior, as it was mimicking the heightened practice of magicians, but on Samhain night, there would have been an expectation to encounter these folks (Kondratiev 120). In modern times, it helps to get outside of yourself during this season. It’s not time to be offensive in the clothing of the opposite sex. It’s time to put yourself in their shoes and take on the identity.

Wearing masks and going door to door asking for treats, nuts, money, cake, butter, bread, and apples was common in the cities and rural areas. The gathered goodies were then used in a party. The guisers would wear masks that were painted and sometimes grotesque (210). The breaking of pots was almost consider a rite by jokesters (Evans 73).

Some suspect this is connected with christmas caroling traditions. Horse imagery, likely from Iron Age horse sacrifices, is strong still in these customs, at least in the occurrence of a gang leader named Láir Bhán, White Mare, and accounts of children dressing like horses (Danaher 214).

Gangs would bring horns and horn blowers around to farmers homes and extort treats out of them, blackmailing or threatening to cause mischief. The concept of Trick or Treat here find its ancestor.

When they heard the horns, the folks inside would rush to get the whitebread or other treats ready and hand them through a half opened door as the leader approached chanting in Irish (211). One chant goes as follows:

Seo, a mháighistreás,
Cuardaigh do phócaí
Agus tabhair rud éigineach do sna buachailibh,
Agus scaoil chun siubhail iad;
Nó buail mé féin idir an dá shúil
Le píosa leath-choróineach. 
Now, Mistress,
Search your pockets,
And give something to the boys,
And let them go on their way.
Or hit me between the eyes,
With a half crown piece. - Kinsale, Co Cork (212)

Coming home from these gatherings of feasting and games, folks would clown around and place wheels on houses and do other shenanigans. Some folks would steal crops harvested and stage it as if the neighbor had taken it, or a drunken person had their face painted (202).

9. Folk Magic Divinations and Ducking for Apples

Ducking for apples is so popular it acts as a divination and a game. A cross was made and on two arms candles were placed and apples jammed onto the others. A cord in the middle was hung from the rafters(Evans 268). The cross was spun around in a circle and folks tried to bite the apples and not the lit candles, getting a mouthful of liquid hot wax (Danaher 206). Potatoes would be substituted for candles in houses of those fearful of burns. This is in addition to being blind folded and ducking for apples in a half barrel placed on the floor.

Alexei believes these practices involving waters, apples, the color red, white, and black are clearly celebrations of the symbolism of the dead. Combine the water ducking with the cross and string, and candles, the apples then put you through ordeals of Fire and Water (Kondratiev 119).

Ducking for apples is so iconic, it needs its own section, however it still fits here with all the other folk divinations. One such rite is to review melted lead poured through a key's hole, which made omens with the resulting shape. Tool shapes like hats or guns mean the omen was about a person's vocation. The roasting of beans and nuts would make them jump, and omens would be taken on them, probably for direction and other things (Danaher 202, 220).

In the presence of potential mates, things which were left undone, like spools of thread in kilns, or clothing to dry at a fire, were left to see who would resolve them, such as respool the thread or flip the shirt (202). This was seen as ‘fishing’ and if done out of a window, one would see who would tug on the end.

A rings, nuts,  or a tiny boat in a fruit cake, the bairín breac, or the champ foretold of marriage or a journey. Bobbing for apples and coins was popular (202). Apples, are in fact, the last fruit of the season to be harvested before the summer is ritually closed (Kondratiev 118).

Sometimes, four plates with different things of varying value would be set and a blindfolded person would choose to know their fate for the coming year (Danaher 219).

Qualtagh is a Manx custom where in new cycles you characterize a new visitor to the home into intuition about the future of that cycle. This is why I celebrate the new moon's end or gealain, divine on it and call them the mini Samhain of the month.

On Samhain, people took omen in the wind at midnight, its strength and direction told of fruits of the winter season. The moon being covered partially, fully, or not at all foretold of the storms and amount of rain of the season (218). A stake was stuck in the mud at the joining of two streams, and the next morning the clan elders would divine the weather from its appearance (203 218).

Samhain Ritual Themes

  • Dissolution
  • Renewal
  • Blessing Livestock
  • Hospitality with the Dead
  • Tribe contending with wild
  • Pure Warriors contending with Spirits
  • Living joining the dead
  • Shared Feasts
  • Joining of the First and Second Functions to secure victory.
  • Divination & Seership
  • Timelessness
  • Mock Horse led Processions like those of the Muck Olla
Danaher, K. (1994). The year in Ireland. Cork: Mercier Press.
Evans, E. (2000). Irish folk ways. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, p.Plate 15.
Kondratiev, A. (2003). The apple branch. New York: Citadel.


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