Why Samhain is not the “New Year”

The following is adapted from Dancing the Sacred Wheel where I brought to the reader’s attention that the assumption that Samhain was the Celtic “new year” and therefore has been adapted as such into modern paganism.

The “new year” assumption is believed to have originated from an interpretation made by 19th century antiquarian, Sir John Rhys, in his “Hibbert Lectures” presented in 1886. In these lecture, Sir John interpreted comments made by Julius Caesar on Gaulish Druidic timekeeping as Samhain being perceived as the Celtic New Year due to “the Celts reckoned Dis the father of all and regarded darkness and death as taking precedence over light and life.  So in their computation of time, they began with night and winter and not with daylight and summer.  This is probably the key to reckoning years as winter.”

Being the first scholar of Celtic studies at Oxford University, Sir John’s interpretation does not appear to have been questioned, despite P.W. Joyce commenting in A Social History of Ancient Ireland (1903) that “O’Donovan stated in 1847 (Book of Rights 1ii) that the season with which the Pagan Irish began their year could not be (then) determined”.

Sir John’s incorrect interpretation was never challenged resulting it appearing in what today are now considered to be “classical” works, including The Golden Bough where Sir James Frazer recorded that “… the Celts would seem to have dated the beginning of the year from [Samhain] rather than Bealtane.”  Sir James also concluded that “ … we may with some probability infer that [the Celts] reckoned their year from Hallowe’en rather than Beltane.”

By the 1950s, this inaccuracy was considered fact, as pointed out in T.G.E. Powell’s The Celts (1958). 

Jon Bonsing of Caer Australis however has not only queried Sir John’s assertion but also attempts to correct it by pointing out that was no indication whatsoever of Caesar stating that the Celts considered “that winter, death and darkness took any precedence over summer, life or light” as Sir John talked about in his “Hibbert Lectures”.

Caer Australis further indicate that there is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that Bealtaine was actually considered to be the start of the Celtic year, at least within the Irish tradition.  It was on the eve of Bealtaine that the Tuatha de Danaan arrived on Irish shores, as well as being the time when the great gathering of chiefs occurred at Uisneach, Co. Westmeath.  In 405 CE, during the reign of Dathi, conflict arose between the Pagan Irish and the Christians, resulting in St Patrick lighting his famous Paschal fire at Slane just prior to the lighting of the sacred Bealtaine fires.

Various Celtic heroes were believed to have been born around Bealtaine, providing further evidence of the importance of this festival, and in particular that of the “divine son”.  For example, within the Mabinogian, an entire episode is devoted to the birth of Gwri Golden Hair at Calan Mai (the first day of summer).  Caer Australis indicate that this epithet for Pwyll was given “ … because ‘what hair was on his head was as yellow as gold’.  No wonder his hair is ‘golden’, for no other imagery would be appropriate for the symbolic birth of the sun.”

If that is not evidence enough to at least query the assumption of any historical evidence of Samhain being the Celtic New Year, within the mythos contained within contemporary witchcraft relating to the sabbats do not allow for this. The sabbats, as I explained in Dancing the Sacred Wheel, follow the journey of the God. It is at Samhain when the God descends into the Underworld take up his guise as the Dreaded Lord of the Shadows at Samhain. As his rebirth occurs at the winter solstice coinciding with the renewal of the solar cycle, it makes more sense for the winter solstice to be considered the “new year”.