The sun has set, the bonfires are being lit, and the Feis Shamhna is upon us: the nocturnal festival of Samhain marking the commencement of the new year in the Celtic calendars of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. This ancient celebration was partly assimilated by the Christian religions in the Medieval period as All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) and has been revived in recent times as the Celtic New Year. Samhain itself is one of the four great quarter-festivals of the Gaelic year alongside Iombolg, Bealtaine and Lúghnasa (or Lúnasa), and one of the two dividing points on the calendar between the winter and summer halves of the year (the latter beginning with Bealtaine or May-Eve/May-Day).
In purely practical terms Samhain marked the moment when agricultural communities began to batten down the hatches and prepare to wait out the increasingly dark and dismal days ahead. Cattle and other valuable livestock were brought down from their hillside pastures, and placed in pens or fields close to home. Winter grazing foods, such as mast, were gathered along with berries and fruits. Fences and ditches were repaired, roads and trackways cleared, roofs and walls refurbished. Warfare came to a halt and travel or visitors became rare. Consequently this was also the last opportunity for a major market-festival until the spring-time celebration of Iombolg (or Lá Bhríde), a final chance to exchange or purchase goods, including harvest surpluses for those lucky enough to have produced them. This led to the staging of great communal festivals across Ireland and the Gaelic nations, where not just trade was done but political loyalties were renewed and legal disputes settled or placed into arbitration. Of these the greatest was the Feis Teamhrach at Teamhair na Rí (Tara of the Kings).
However in more mythological terms Samhain represented that brief period in the calendar when the porous barriers between the worlds of gods and men all but disappeared. The long night when the supernatural was most likely to be encountered and invariably with dramatic consequences. Invasions, battles, raids, adventures and disappearances were all the hallmarks of the Feis Shamhna. Below are three articles on the indigenous literary traditions of the peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, focusing primarily on the Irish corpus, that may help illuminate some of the background to the Celtic new year festival.