Possibly Ireland’s most famous known export after Guinness, the Halloween festival we celebrate today originated with the Celtic festival of Samhain. Samhain signified the end of the Celtic year and the end of summer. It was also a festival of great importance with particular significance to the dead.
The Celts split the year into four quarters and there were three other quarterly festival dates: Imbolc, the beginning of spring, February 1st; Bealtaine, the beginning of summer, May 1st; and Lughnasa, the beginning of the harvest season. The latter is thought to begin at the start of August.
In recent times the festival is being revived in Ireland with dances and festivals celebrated on the 1st of August.
A characteristic of Celtic belief was that time cycles started in the darkness and worked towards the light. It is thought that the new year began on the 1st of November, the midpoint between the days of light ending and the days of darkness taking hold, about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. The Celtic new day began at sundown hence the evening of the 31st of October being oiche samhna translated as the evening of the end of summer.
It is thought that the oncoming darkness of winter for the Celts may have meant that the spirits of the other world were now more dominant.
The other world was the world of the dead; of ancestors, deities, fairies, and spirits. It featured heavily in Celtic mythology. At Samhain it was believed that the division between this world and the other world became thinner, allowing spirits to pass from the other world to this. They believed that if they dressed in guise or costume as harmful spirits and other imps, that they would be overlooked by harmful sprites and spirits and this would offer some protection.
A time signifying the end of harvest and bringing livestock down to lower fields from their summer pastures, feasts were held on the harvested foods and offerings were made to the roaming spirits from the harvest.
This was also a time when dead relatives were beckoned to share in the feasting. The food that the dead obviously did not eat may have been given to less fortunate who called to the door of feasting households.
The importance of the festival is demonstrated in the alignment of the Mound of the Hostages at the Hill of Tara in County Meath. At Samhain and also at Imbolc, the passage way alights with morning sunlight due to its alignment with the sun at these times. The mound is thought to have been constructed between 3000bc and 2500bc which might suggest that Samhain had some significance in Ireland long before the arrival of the Celts.
An important part of Samhain was the significance of fire, which may be the reason why we still light bonfires today. Some say that fire lit the way for the sun departing into the other world, others, that fire mimicked the light of the sun and as such kept the darkness away. Another theory is that fires were lit at high points for purification by Druids (pagan priests), extinguishing the old, and signifying new beginnings. What is known is that there was a great Festival of Fire held at Tlachtga, the Hill of the Ward at Samhain where a huge fire was lit. At this time all household domestic fires were to be extinguished and only re-lit from the bonfire at Tlachtga in County Meath. While this was practically impossible, the extinguishing and re-ignition of the fire perhaps demonstrated that the Celts acknowledged the spirits of the other world.
There is perhaps a lot of information lost from the original practices and customs that took place at Samhain. This is sometimes attributed to the Christian churches practice of coinciding Christian feast days with festivals practiced by pagans. Samhain became All Hallows ‘Eve under Pope Gregory IV in the early 800’s ad, “Hallow” meaning holy and ‘Eve referring to evening prior to the day of the 1st of November which now marks All Saints Day. November 2nd then became All Souls Day, a day to mark all deceased.
Halloween is still a huge festival in Ireland and in other parts of the world.
In Ireland it is celebrated with dinner featuring Colcannon of potatoes, onion, and curly kale, followed by Barn Brack or Bairin Breac for desert.
The brack usually has a hidden ring, a rag, and a coin baked inside. The ring signifies the promise of love and is the most prized find. The coin signifies good fortune and the rag, (mostly left out nowadays so as not to upset the kids), indicates that you will be unfortunate or poor.
Irish emigrants brought Halloween with them to Northern America, and a Northern American harvest food was the pumpkin. Pumpkin carving has now become a huge part of the Irish Halloween where previously Irish people carved turnips and beet, and so traditions are exchanged.
After trick or treating, games such as apple bobbing in a basin of water, (where the aim of the game is to successfully take a bite of a bobbing apple, while blindfolded), are great fun and messy affairs. Be prepared for a kitchen floor to turn into a slip and slide.
After the games sit down by the lit fire and tell some ghost stories, this was always my favourite part of the evening of oiche samhna.