This major festival has several aspects. It is considered the third (meat) harvest, New Year’s Eve, the Day of the Dead (the dead are honored as they were by the ancient Celts & Egyptians and even now in Mexico) and a night that the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is thinnest. It is thought that divination is easier and more powerful, the fairy folk creates mischief on this night, and that our lost loved ones are nearer to us (and thus easier to contact) for this reason. One reason to contact those who have passed on would be to strengthen our karmic ties to them in order to be assured we will incarnate in our next life with them.
Rituals on this night generally include remembering and honoring loved ones and ancestors. You may also celebrate reincarnation and another tradition is called the “dumb supper”. This entails that while feasting on all the wonderful items available at the last harvest a place is set for departed family members. You might set photos or other mementos upon the table and tell stories or jokes and remember wonderful times shared by you and those who have passed on to their next great adventure.
It is not unusual to ask your ancestors’ spirits to aid and assist you in whichever form/s of divination you prefer to use. Some of the most common and oldest forms of scrying used are fire or flame, and mirror. You might also try a dark bowl or cauldron filled with liquid, crystals, pendulums, runes, tarots or reading tea leaves. Guided meditations or astral travel for the purpose of past life regression and/or for the purpose of knowing or learning something specific from one’s ancestors are very successful on this night.
Also on this night, we note the absence of the Sun (the god), who will be reborn at Winter Solstice as the Child of Promise. The Crone is called upon for comfort; the dying God is mourned. The Sun God’s power is at it’s weakest, and the Moon Goddess’ power is at it’s strongest. (remember this when doing any magickal working on this night or even at this time of year)
This is the time when cattle and sheep where brought in from summer pasture, all but breeding stock being killed for winter food and to make fewer mouths to feed. The last fruit was picked, except that which would be left for the Sidhe, and the grain was already gathered and had been processed for fodder, flour, and beer. Fishermen put up their boats and stored their gear. Debts would be paid up. Young people who hired out as farm or herder help would return home, as would the warriors of the Fianna and any Bards or poets traveling about would find a household to attach themselves to. Many of the people would begin preparing for the long, dark winter of living almost constantly indoors in often crowded conditions. Farmers and other workers would be preparing to change their summer occupation in for one of gathering wood for the next year giving it a year to dry, much as their descendants would well into the 20th century.
The festival itself is a fire festival and would be celebrated with bonfires, feasts, and the killing of the livestock for the feasts and to be cured for later at large gatherings as well as smaller local ones. The Gods, Sidhe, and Ancestors would be welcome and fed in ritual, as they would be by individuals at home and hall. Divination was important, for not only was this a major turning point in the year but such things would be easier with the nearness of Otherworldly help. The fires of the old year would be extinguished to be replaced by new ones.
Storytelling started at this time and in many chieftains’ halls, it was mandatory that a story is told every night during the dark half of the year –from Samhain to Beltaine. After all, except for hunting expeditions and the fixing of weapons and tools, there wasn’t a lot to do at this time; while temperatures in the British Isles are kept relatively mild by the Gulf Stream it is dark and rainy most of the days during the winter months.
What about those horrible Witches everywhere and the annoying Trick or Treaters? Well, this is the time of year that the Scots believed that the Cailleach, the Hag, arises from stone to walk the Earth. She actually had a blue-gray or almost blackface. She is an important supernatural being in Gaelic myth. This is the time of year to honor the goddess in her Crone form. And yes, Cailleach was often considered both scary and reverently comical, for winter was a fearful time and best faced with humor. Considering leaving some water for Her as She is thirsty when She awakens.
The other modern annoyance for some Pagans, Trick or Treat, seems to have been started in Antiquity by young people who disguised themselves and requested hospitality from all they met this has been a practice at all Fire Festivals in some variation. It is always important for us to treat them well, we can never be sure that one really is a costumed child and we don’t want to deal with one of Their Tricks if they should be our Ancestors or a supernatural entity. There is also speculation that this might have been a way for widows and orphans to procure their winter stores.
The “Trick” aspect that we still have when young people vandalize and create general chaos irrespective of getting “Treats” is of some antiquity; in Scotland at least, the youths would break things, tear up gardens, and run rampant to destroy the past year This represented the actions of the Otherworldly beings and rendered that which was left useless to humans, therefore only of value to those of the Otherworld. Samhain is really the time in between two years and is, therefore, a time of Chaos, a time when the Otherworld rules. Afterward, a new order would be created for the New Year.