At this time of year, the word "Samhain" gets knocked around a lot, often by people talking about Halloween and wanting to sound more authentic about the holiday. Unfortunately, not everyone has a real clue about what Samhain is, so it can be hard to understand when there is too much misinformation out there.
Bottom line to the question "What is Samhain?" is: an annual holiday to celebrate the last of the harvest and the start of winter. That's it. To elaborate, here is a bit more on the background of the real Samhain.
First of all, there is no Celtic God of the Dead called Samhain. That's completely false. The Celts didn't really have a God of the Dead in the first place, and certainly not one named Samhain. The term is probably rooted in their word "samhuinn" which is the Gaelic term for the end of summer. See, nothing gruesome at all.
In the Celtic scheme of things, this is the last of 3 harvest festivals. The first two are Lammas and Mabon. Since surviving the winter depended on a good crop each year, the harvests were celebrated, with each one focusing on the traditional crops of the area (grains, corn, squash, grapes, etc).
Along with the end of harvest, Samhain also marks the starting of the winter, or the dark half of the year. It was this connection with darkness that led to the natural observances towards death and our past ancestors. This was a time to reflect back on those who have passed and to often remember the spirits of family members that had gone on before.
How this all got tied with trick-or-treating, you can find out more in the longer article I've already done on the history of Halloween.
And if you want to sound educated, you should know how to pronounce it. It's not said like its spelled, so it shouldn't rhyme with rain. It's usually said like "SOW-en", though there are a few other variations.
So there you have it, a brief explanation about what is Samhain. It's a holiday to mark the end of the harvest season, not about any sinister God of the Dead.
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