Douglas MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published eight books in the genre of historic true crime. You can check out his book on the mysterious disappearance of the Sodder children case here.
November 1st marks the annual and ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, a celebration that marked the beginning of the new year and paid homage to the supernatural influences that inhabited the dark days of the coming winter.
As the start of the new year, there was great celebration of Samhain throughout the Celtic peoples. Villagers would gather together to honor the conclusion of the hard labors of the harvest, and animals that were not expected to live through the harsh winter were sacrificed, which naturally led to a communal feast.
It was a commonly held belief, until recent times, that on Samhain the boundary between this world and the Otherworld of spirits was at its weakest, allowing humans and supernatural creatures to pass back and forth between the usually detached realms.
The Christian church attempted to lessen the sinister and supernatural aspects of Samhain with the installation of All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Martinmas – but the ominous Samhain beliefs would not go away and many were later the basis of the modern Halloween.
The connection to the Otherworld led to a belief that the future could best be predicted at Samhain. And, due to the bounty of the recent harvest, many Samhain (and later Halloween) prophecy customs featured apples and berries and nuts. In Scotland, for example, nuts were named after a courting couple and put into the fireplace. The behavior of the nuts – burning quietly together or bursting away from each other – was believed to mirror the future of the actual couple.
Other forms of divination not involving fruits of the harvest were also widely practiced. A common practice was dripping an egg white into a glass of water and then making predictions based on the stringy shape the egg white took in the water.
On Samhain Eve in the 18th century along the Scottish borders, young women would wash their blouses and hang them over a chair to dry. And if she remained awake long after the candles were out, she would see the phantom image of her future husband come into the room and turn the garment over.
Not all of the practices in prophecy foretold glad tidings, however. In North Wales and Perthshire, for example, it was a common practice to make a small Samhain bonfire near each home and, after the fire had dwindled, every family member tossed a stone into the ashes. The next morning, everyone would search for their own stone, and if it was missing, it foretold that the stone’s owner would die before the next Samhain.
Samhain mixed the celebration of a new year with the unsettling interaction of unseen presences. Although the original significance of Samhain practices will be debated for years, neopagan religions such as Wicca have given the holiday new and various meanings.
Clement A. Miles may have best summarized the festival when he wrote in 1912 that the rituals “may be regarded…as a kind of sacrament (to) the vegetation spirit…(and the fires symbolize) sun-charms for the new year, a kind of homeopathic magic intended to assist the sun in his struggle with the powers of darkness.”