Samhain, in Irish Gaelic, is actually the word for "November". Kinda makes sense, doesn't it?
It was also the word used for the month of the Celtic calendar--there was a festival that marked the end of summer and celebrated the harvest. It also marked one of the sabbat feasts in the Wiccan wheel of the year (the opposite on the wheel is Beltane, which is the Wiccan celebration of life). The modernized version of this celebration is what we now call All Souls Day, or "Halloween".
So indeed, Samhain, or Halloween, did begin as a pagan holiday of sorts. I'd celebrate, too, when the village turned out a good crop and was able to ensure everyone would be fed through the winter. They had every reason in the world to party; the harvest was literally a triumph of life over death. This was the time to take stock of herds, grain supplies, decide which animals were to be slaughtered so that both the people and the rest of the livestock could survive the winter. It's still a custom observed by farmers and professionals in husbandry today.
Samhain Eve in Scots and Irish Gaelic takes place on October 31, during the final harvest. This is the Oidhche Shamnha, the name still used for the modern day version of Halloween.
I mention this in dissertation because, as a descendant of those hardy folk, it rankles when people refer to Samhain as a Satanic holiday, or a holiday celebrated by witches, ie, "devil worshipers". It's not at all accurate, and it certainly isn't fair. Anyone who characterizes it as such is woefully uninformed, and anyone who practices Samhain in that vein is abominably blasphemous about the true meaning of the holiday--and of "witches" in general. True Witches are not devil-worshipers, by the way. If they are committed, honest devotees of the craft, they celebrate the earth and its bounty, its power and its beauty, and revere and hold in high esteem the Creator who made it all.
Some of my ancestors were hung or stoned when they moved to the New World for "speaking in tongues" or for using "questionable" herbs in medicinal practice. Well, most of them were midwives who learned herbal lore from their mothers and grandmothers, and most of them spoke Gaelic. It's a strange-sounding language, I'll grant, and is virtually unlearnable to anyone who didn't grow up speaking it. Ignorance bred fear in the hearts of those who didn't bother asking questions. So people were killed for honoring their heritage. Incidentally, so were the Native Americans, but that's another post.
That ignorance and fear still exists, and I can't help but be astounded at the level of vilification and judgment people hurl at what they don't understand. You build a bonfire at Samhain and some of these nutjobs will say you're enacting a Satanic ritual and are sacrificing black cats to the Dark Prince. Look, Satan doesn't want black cats, trust me. He could care less about that shit; on the scale of his ambitions, cats don't really cause a blip on his radar. He's got bigger things on his mind.
The word Bonfire derives its etymology from Bonefire. Villagers were said to have cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames--cattle having a prominent place in the relationship between man and the Creator. In your Judeo-Christian lore, as well as the Gaelic, people were constantly sacrificing livestock as a gesture of thanksgiving and prayer. Moses did it. So did Joshua and Jacob and Abraham. I defy anyone to label them Devil Worshipers.
With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers would put out all the other fires. Then each family, in a solemn ceremony, lit their hearths from the common flame of the huge bonfire--kind of like we do today with the Olympic Flame. This bonded each family in the village together as a whole, uniting in the common struggle of survival and celebrating their prosperity. It was community relations, in short; an act of solidarity.
After the Roman adoption of the holiday (usually celebrated in May) and the advent of Christianization, the November festival of Samhain eventually became All Hallows Day on November 1st, and All Souls Day followed on November 2nd. Both evolved into All Hallows Eve on October 31, and finally reached its present incarnation as the secular "Halloween" that we know today.
Samhain is still observed in Celtic culture today, and it is a wonderful affirmation of life, nature, and the cycle of life and death. It is not a bloodthirsty ritual of Darkness; nor is it blasphemous or even slightly profane.
I consider myself to be a bit of a polytheist, I suppose. I respect and often agree with the beliefs expressed in Christianity, Bhuddism, Islam, and Judaism, among others, and admire those who have the conviction of deep faith in those beliefs. However, I think that there are quite likely many roads to God, Jehovah, Allah, the Creator--or Big Daddy--whatever we call him (or her, or it). I'm not sure I believe that there is just one religion or belief is the "One Way". Frankly, I think it might be just a wee bit arrogant to assert such a thing; how can any human being know the Mind of God? How can I condemn someone for believing something I don't, or vilify them for the same thing? Who died and made me God? If you read your Old Testament, you find out that people got smacked down big time by Big Daddy when they started thinking that way. All I know is that I don't know everything, and I'm not going to. I'll still be asking questions on the day I die.
Sliante o dha dhuit--Happy Samhain, and Happy Halloween. This is the beginning of Winter. Harvest that which you have planted, celebrate it, and share it. May we all emerge together a brighter, stronger, and happier community in the Spring!