WHAT IS SAMHAIN?
Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-en’) is an ancient Celtic fire festival marking the final harvest and the end of the ‘light half’ of the year. Traditionally celebrated on October 31st, it was believed that the veil between the physical and spirit realms was at its thinnest at Samhain &ndash allowing the spirits of the dead to commune freely with the living. Offerings of food were left for ancestors to partake of, and candles were placed in windows to welcome home the spirits of beloved relatives. Still celebrated by modern Pagans, the tradition of welcoming spirits at Samhain has inspired the latter-day holiday of Halloween.
The following is from "The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows", by Jack Santino, from the archives of the US Library of Congress, American Folklore Center
"Virtually all present Halloween traditions can be traced to the ancient Celtic day of the dead. Halloween is a holiday of many mysterious customs, but each one has a history, or at least a story behind it. The wearing of costumes, for instance, and roaming from door to door demanding treats can be traced to the Celtic period and the first few centuries of the Christian era, when it was thought that the souls of the dead were out and around, along with fairies, witches, and demons. Offerings of food and drink were left out to placate them. As the centuries wore on, people began dressing like these dreadful creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. This practice is called mumming, from which the practice of trick-or-treating evolved. To this day, witches, ghosts, and skeleton figures of the dead are among the favorite disguises. Halloween also retains some features that harken back to the original harvest holiday of Samhain, such as the customs of bobbing for apples and carving vegetables, as well as the fruits, nuts, and spiced cider associated with the day."