To celebrate Samhain or Halloween? That is the question. Actually, that has been the question ever since, so it's time to set the record straight.
The short answer is you can celebrate both! Samhain and Halloween are different holidays (although Halloween does trace its roots to Samhain).
The long, intriguing answer has a lot do with how the Catholic church took over a perfectly good pagan holiday and made it their own.
Samhain was originally the Celtic New Year. As far back as 2,000 years ago, the Celts divided their year into four major holidays. The most important one fell on the day corresponding to November 1. As winter was drawing nearer, this day marked the transition from an abundant earth to a barren one. Everything "died", but would then be reborn in a few months.
This time was also a powerful period for communicating with those that have died that year. The Celts believed that the spirits would be passing by on their way to the otherworld. This is why for the Celts, Samhain was the Day of the Dead.
The shift from the Celtic traditional holiday to the festivities we know today was caused by the Catholic church's cunning maneuvers. (Well, "cunning" is one word for it.) As with any major pagan tradition, Samhain was adopted and transformed into a Catholic holiday to convert pagans to Christians. This was made possible by a decree from Pope Gregory.
Because of this decree, a Roman holiday called Lupercalia - a day to celebrate love and fertility - was transformed into St. Valentine's day. This is just one example. Another, of course, is Samhain becoming Halloween.
The Catholic church assigned November 1 as All Saints or All Hallows Day (hallowed means "holy") and it eventually became All Hallows Evening or Hallowe'en.
Things change, but some stay the same. Well, they change a little in the case of Halloween. Remember what we said about the original Celtic day being the Day of the Dead? That actually stuck, and people still believe that spirits freely roam the earth on October 31st.
Trick-or-treating can be traced back to the Celtic tradition of leaving food outside for spirits on their way to the otherworld. As Christianity spread, the practice evolved into wealthy people giving "soul cakes" to the poor in exchange for praying for the former's souls. Eventually, children began asking villagers for treats in exchange for performing a "trick", such as singing a song or reciting a poem.
Other Celtic practices that stuck are carving vegetables, apple bobbing, and drinking cider.
For Wiccans and pagans, Samhain is about honoring the dead. Most would also agree that this Sabbat is the New Year. It is both a solemn and celebratory religious holiday.
Mainstream culture would largely define Halloween as a secular and commercial celebration involving costume parties, trick-or-treating, lighting bonfires, and sharing scary stories. Its Christian "roots" have taken a large step back against this huge holiday that's celebrated worldwide regardless of religion.
Given that you know the history and significance of each one, you may celebrate both. You can decorate your lawn with carved pumpkins and still set up your Samhain altar inside. Or maybe go to a costume party and perform a solitary ritual for your ancestors once you're home.
The important thing to remember here is that there should be understanding and respect for those who've passed on - the very people whom we must remember on this special day.
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