Did you know Halloween is based on the Gaelic tradition called Samhain? Samhain (sow, like cow, + inn) is one of two major festivals that mirror each other: Beltane in spring and Samhain in autumn. While the traditions of Samhain are varied, the common themes center around celebrating and remembering the dead, protecting your home as the veil is thinnest on this day, and shedding the old endings of life and starting new beginnings.
A Quick History of the Traditions of Samhain
Part of the fun in learning more about the traditions of Samhain is seeing how many we already incorporate into our Halloween festivities: bobbing for apples, Jack O’ Lanterns, dressing up in costumes, eating pumpkins, and lighting firepits. While innocuous to many Americans, each of these traditions is steeped in pagan beliefs.
Bobbing for apples was a way of divining who would receive luck in the new year.
Jack O’ Lanterns were originally carved out of various root vegetables, the most popular being turnips, to carry around that evening and place at your home boundaries to scare away bad spirits.
People dressed up as evil spirits to confuse and keep them away from their communities.
Even trick or treating is rooted in this festival, with young boys covering their faces in the ashes of the community bonfire and releasing mischief if you didn’t give them a treat.
Bonfires for Cleansing and Protection
One of my favorite traditions that is present to this day is the community bonfire. The bonfire is lit in a circle to symbolize the Sun to hold back the darkness and winter. It’s also a powerful way to cleanse and protect the community. In fact, many communities build two bonfires so that everyone can walk in between the fires to receive cleansing and protection.
Families would douse their hearth fires on this night to banish evil. As the festivities ended, each family bought a flame from the communal bonfire to relight their hearth. The flame brought community, protection, and cleansing into their home for the new year.
Many witches and pagans can attest that holding protection over a home for a full year requires great power, and no one can do it alone. It makes sense that you would protect your home with the power granted from the community, coven, or gathering.
Remembering Loved Ones
Similar to Dia de Muertos, Samhain is also a holiday to celebrate and remember the dead. As someone with a mixed heritage of Mexican, Native American, and Scotch-Irish, it’s beautiful to me that all of my ancestors took this time to remember the loved ones who passed on. Part of the Samhain festivities is to light candles in your window to help the dead find their way home. Another is hosting a Dumb Supper, where you leave a place for your loved one and eat in silence so that the departed can enjoy the meal with you and not be spirited away on accident.
For fantasy book lovers, several themes have roots in Samhain. The Morrigan was rumored to have a wild Hallowmas Ride on Samhain with her followers. The famous story of Tam Lin also takes place on Samhain. In this story, a maiden rescues her lover from the faeries, inciting the anger of the Faerie Queen. Many fantasy books also make mention of a community bonfire lighting the hearth fires of the individual covens of witches.
Samhain Feasts and Drinks
I wouldn’t be the Bevographer if I didn’t talk about the drinks! Like most harvest celebrations, Samhain includes drinking wine, mead, and cider. You could simply leave it at that and celebrate with a delightful local cider or a robust red wine.
However, if you want to take it a step further, you can make a Samhain cocktail with pumpkin, apples, pears, or dried fruits. Basically, think of all your favorite things about fall and start experimenting with them.
As pumpkin-spiced cocktails are abundant this year, I want to direct you instead to include pears before they go out of season.
The Night Hag Samhain Cocktail
This easy twist on a New York Sour includes some seriously witchy spices to help give you protection, let go of the endings (much like trees shed their leaves), and open yourself up to new journeys. The ingredients and their meanings included in this magical cocktail are:
- Pear for comfort and balance
- Cinnamon for protection, abundance, and love
- Cloves for new beginnings, protection, and abundance
- Nutmeg for clarity and strength
- Bourbon for wealth, prosperity, and abundance
- Lemon for cleansing and healing
- Egg for binding, healing, and rebirth
The cocktail is named after the Sir Walter Scott poem, St. Swithin’s Chair:
For on Hallow-Mass Eve the Night-Hag will ride,
And all her nine-fold sweeping on by her side,
Whether the wind sing lowly or loud,
Sailing through moonshine or swathed in the cloud.
If this overwhelms you, don’t worry — I take more of a Slughorn approach to potions than a Snape-like one. Save, print, or Pin this full Samhain cocktail below.
The Night Hag Samhain Cocktail
- ¼ cup diced Pear
- ¼ tsp. ground Cinnamon
- 3-4 whole Cloves
- ¼ tsp. Ground Nutmeg
- 1 tbsp. Brown Sugar
- 2 oz. Bourbon
- .75 oz. Lemon Juice
- 1 Egg White
- .75 oz. Red Wine
- Add a large, clear ice cube to a rocks glass while you make the cocktail.
- Muddle pear, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and brown sugar together in a shaking tin.
- Add bourbon and lemon juice and dry shake until well combined.
- Double strain. Add egg white and ice and shake vigorously until chilled.
- Strain out the ice and dry shake to whip the egg white.
- Pour into the rocks glass.
- Using a barspoon, carefully float the red wine by putting the spoon into the drinking and slowly pouring the wine down the swizzled edges.
- Add a dehydrated pear to garnish and enjoy!