One World (Autumn 2005)

South KC Multicultural Festival

Longview Community College invited Cultural Crossroads to join in “A Celebrati on of All of Us” – certainly a theme aligned with our own vision. Our “Reading & Rhythm” program of folklore stories and multicultural dances was a great basis for the various performances of dance from different cultures on two stages. Held on Saturday, October 8, this was the first year for Longview’s cultural festival and it was very successful – watch for this event next year and be sure to attend!

Celtic New Year- Samhain

We continue our series about new year celebrations from different cultures with Celtic New Year, which has evolved into a holiday celebrated widely in this country – Halloween – although the premise and focus of this very American holiday has changed considerably from the original. Samhain (pronounced “sah-wen”) means roughly “summer’s end” and, in ancient Celtic villages, was celebrated over a period of several days. The first day of the year is November 1, but the Celts count the beginning of the year at dusk on October 31, the eve of the new year.

The Celts honored all intertwining forces of existence: darkness and light, night and day, cold and heat, death and life. Celtic knotwork art represents this intertwining. The Celts observed time as proceeding from darkness to light. Thus, the Celtic day began at dusk, the beginning of the dark and cold night, and ended the following dusk, the end of a day of light and warmth. Similarly, the Celtic year begins with the dark Celtic winter, and ends with Am Foghar (“am fo-war”), the harvest.

Oidhche Shamhna (“oi-kha haw-na”), the Eve of Samhain, was the most important part of Samhain. All Saints Day, celebrated on the first day of November, also originated in this ancient Celtic feast. The evening of Oidhche Shamhna became known as Hallow Evening, then Hallow E’en, and, eventually, Halloween.

At Samhain, villagers gathered the best of the autumn harvest and slaughtered cattle for the feast. The focus of each village’s festivities was a great bonfire. Villagers cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. (The English word “bonfire” comes from these “bone fires”.) With the bonfire roaring, the villagers extinguished all other fires. In a ceremony which bonded all families of the village together, each family solemnly relit their hearth from that one great common flame, by relighting the hearth fire with embers carried home from the common fire. The embers were carried home in carved turnips, the origins of today’s jack-o’lanterns.

The eve of the Celtic year was a very sacred time and not an evil time. Celts believe that Oidhche Shamhna was a gap in time. The veil between our world and the Otherworld became thin on that night between the old and new years. The dead could return to the places where they had lived. Many rituals of Oidhche Shamhna provided hospitality for dead ancestors. Celts put out food and drink for the dead ancestors with great ceremony. Villagers left their gates, doors, and windows unlocked to give the ancestors free passage into their homes.

There is also a much lighter side to Celtic New Year rituals. In olden times, children would put on strange disguises and roam the countryside, pretending to be returning dead ancestors or mischievous spirits from the Otherworld. Celts thought the break in reality on November Eve not only provided a link between the worlds, but also dissolved the structure of society for the night. Boys and girls would put on each other’s clothes, and would generally flout convention by boisterous behavior and by playing tricks on their elders. It is obvious how that custom has become the Halloween costumes and customs of today.

Divination of the events of the coming year was another prominent feature of Samhain. Celts used hazelnuts, symbols of wisdom, to foretell the future. Bobbing for apples, another traditional Samhain pastime, was a reference to the Celtic Emhain Abhlach, “Paradise of Apples,” where the dead, having eaten of the sacred fruit, enjoyed a blissful immortality.

Ancient Celtic religion cast the year as a contest between the gods of winter and summer for the favor of the goddess of the earth. The god of summer claimed victory at Latha Buidhe Bealltainn (May Day), but at Samhain the god of winter, who was also lord of the Otherworld, was victorious. Celts often depicted the god of winter with antlers which he shed each autumn like a stag. Families in Brittany still herald the coming of winter by baking kornigou, little cakes in the shape of antlers, to commemorate the god of winter shedding his horns as he returns to his kingdom in the Otherworld.

Originally, Celts used a lunar calendar of thirteen uneven months, but later adapted the Roman calendar into a Celtic solar calendar of twelve roughly-even months, beginning with Samhain on the first day of an t-Samhain (November).


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