Samhain is the word for November in Irish Gaelic. In Scottish Gaelic it is Samhainn or Samhuinn (for the feast), or an t-Samhain (for the month). The Festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season and is generally regarded as 'The Celtic New Year'.
The Celts divided the year into two halves, the 'dark' half (beginning with the October/November lunation), and the light half' (beginning with the April/May lunation). Samhain remained the principal festival and was often marked with a feast and celebration for three days. Two major themes of these celebrations were celebrating the dead, as the ancient Celts believed this was a time when the boundaries between this world and the next were broken so the spirits of the past could reach the living; and divining for the future. Traditionally, Samhain was also a time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter. This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock. Bonfires also played a large part in the festivities. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes the cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires, as well.
Some Wiccan texts suggest the following: In parts of western Brittany Samhain is still heralded by the baking of kornigou, cakes baked in the shape of antlers to commemorate the god of winter shedding his "cuckold" horns as he returns to his kingdom in the Otherworld. The Romans identified Samhain with their own feast of the dead, the Lemuria. This, however, was observed in the days leading up to May 13. These sources assume that thereby with Christianization, the festival in November (not the Roman festival in May) became All Hallows' Day on November 1st followed by All Souls' Day, on November 2nd, after which the night of October 31 was called All Hallow's Eve, and the remnants festival dedicated to the dead eventually morphed into the secular holiday known as Halloween.
According to Celtic lore, Samhain is a time when the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead become thinner, at times even fading away completely, allowing spirits and other supernatural entities to pass between the worlds to socialize with humans. It is the time of the year when ancestors and other departed souls are especially honored. Often a meal will be prepared of favorite foods of the family's and community's beloved dead (the birth of the "treat" part of trick or treat), a place set for them at the table, and traditional songs, poetry and dances performed to entertain them. A door or window may be opened to the west and the beloved dead specifically invited to attend. Many leave a candle or other light burning in a western window to guide the dead home.
The dead were not to be feared. Instead, they could provide information on past and future events. It was also believed that they could aid the living in practical and spiritual matters. If the dead did a good deed for you, he or she would be rewarded and assisted in the elevation process of the afterlife; therefore, ancestor veneration was a normal part of Celtic life because they believed that if the dead helped you, they could earn brownie points on their side of the veil.
Samhain was also a night where the faery folk, though not evil were not be trifled with, were out and about. As a result the ancient Celts invented many practices in order to appease these and other creatures they thought were on the roam. Similar to the dummy suppers for their ancestors, they would offer the spirits parcels of food. This in fact was the origin of the practice of guising - a word which comes from 'disguising', or traveling around in costume.
Samhain is also when a great deal of divination for the coming year is often done, whether in all solemnity or as games for the children. The more mystically inclined may also see this as a time for deeply communing with the deities, especially those whom the lore mentions as being particularly connected with this festival. Divination, usually involving apples and nuts, is a common folkloric practice that has also survived in rural areas. The most common uses were to determine the identity of one's future spouse, the location of one's future home, and how many children a person might have. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the direction the birds flew.
Wicca and Neopaganism
Samhain is observed by various pagans in various ways. As forms of Neopaganism can be quite different and have very different origins, these representations can vary considerably despite the shared name. Some Neopagans have elaborate rituals to honor the dead, and the deities who are associated with the dead in their particular culture or tradition. Some celebrate in a manner as close as possible to how the Ancient Celts and Living Celtic cultures have maintained the traditions, while others observe the holiday with rituals culled from numerous other unrelated sources, Celtic culture being only one of the sources used.
For Wiccans, Samhain is one the eight annual holidays or sabbats. It is considered by most Wiccans to be the most important of the four 'greater Sabbats'. In some Wiccan denominations this feast, celebrated in the northern hemisphere on October 31 or November 1 is observed in the southern hemisphere on May 1. Samhain is considered by most Wiccans as a celebration of death and of the dead, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness and death, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the spring festival of Beltane. In many Wiccan circles, Samhain is also commemorated as the death of the God.
America began celebrating Halloween with the arrival of the Scots and the Irish. When the mass of Scots and Irish emigrated to the New World in the 1800's they took with them their old customs and traditions. In fact America has only been celebrating Halloween for over one hundred and fifty years. In Scotland and Ireland, turnips were used for Jack-O-Lanterns, but when the tradition was taken over to America pumpkins were used because they were easier to hollow out than the neep!!!! And that is the origin of the Lantern. It is interesting to note that vintage American Halloween cards actually depict Scottish symbols such as the Scottish thistle, cabbages, tartan and poetry.