Samhain (pronounced Sah-win or Sow-in) is the third and final of the harvest festivals celebrated by modern day pagans, witches and druids and also by those in Gaelic nations in ancient times. Samhain was typically celebrated as the end of the summer season, and the beginning of winter and the dark half of the year. It is one of the most important Sabbats in the Wheel of the Year – being known as the "Witches New Year". This particular Sabbat is celebrated on Halloween, October 31st into November 1st and denotes the time when the veil between worlds becomes the thinnest between our world and the next. This makes communication with spirits from the other side, the ancestors and loved ones who have passed over much easier, and is one of the primary things that occurs during this time.
In the past, Samhain was celebrated with feasting and divination as well as guising and mumming – which is what ancient trick or treating was: dressing up in disguises and going door to door reciting verses of words in exchange for drink or food. The people of the time would set out carved gourds such as the pumpkins we use today alongside things like squashes and other vegetables that could be carved, and then lit with candles within to help light the way home for the departed souls to feast with their families. The traditional “dumb supper” was usually held, with a place set at the table for the dead. This meal was a large feast that was consumed in total silence as a way to honor the departed, and often included many of the recently harvested vegetables and fruits.
Samhain is also a time throughout the ages as the period when the food stocks and cattle or livestock would be looked at and the animals to be slaughtered for winter meat would be chosen. Many farmers still today bring their livestock down from their summer pastures and choose the animals to be killed. Back in ancient times a lot of ritual would surround this activity, but these days it is done when the ability to forage no longer exists and the meats are then kept over winter for food for the residents of the farm/surrounding area.
With regard to food and ritual at Samhain, as spirits and otherworldly figures were known to walk the earth at this time, it was believed that they needed to be fed as well, and many people would leave special drinks and treats out for these spirits. It was believed that the spirits would be primarily faeries, small beings from the Otherworld which came out to play tricks and spook the people of our world – hence the disguises and costuming, to help the people blend in with the faeries. Faeries of course being sometimes quite scary and startling looking creatures and not the Tinkerbell types we think of when we hear the term.
One other belief at Samhain was that the Wild Hunt would take place, with the leader often being the leader of the Otherworld himself, or a deity eponymous with the Norse God Odin. Other leaders could have been the dead themselves, a wandering spirit, or even legendary figures such as Finn MacCool or Gwyn ap Nudd from the Welsh stories of the Mabinogion. The primary focus of the Wild Hunt was to comb over the world and collect the wandering souls who had passed away the year prior, taking them to the Summerland. In this sense, Samhain was one of the last opportunities for this soul or spirit to walk the earth before being taken home by the Wild Hunt. Even to this day adults tell children stories of the dogs of the Hunt barking in advance of the Hunt coming on Samhain night.
So there's a quick rundown on this most sacred of Sabbats in the Wheel of the Year for witches and general pagans alike. This is a time of being able to commune with those who have gone before, to gain wisdom and guidance, and to shed what no longer serves to to make room for the new. Samhain is truly the 'Death' Tarot card - the changing and the renewal, the rebirth and the opportunity to wipe the slate clean to start again.