Ireland is a spooky place! So spooky, in fact, that it is the home of Hallowe’en. With stories of the “púca” (the native Irish name for a shape-changing spirit) and “banshee” (translated in English as fairy woman), many of the world’s favorite Hallowe’en traditions were formed in Ireland. The island’s hills and woodland, valleys and villages, feel especially attuned to those otherworldly stirrings that haunt us at Hallowe’en. Read 10 top reasons why Ireland OWNS spooky season!
1. Pumpkin carving
The pumpkins carved today are not half as scary as the freaky-looking turnips that started the tradition in Ireland. Hollowed-out turnips were used as lanterns to light the journeys of “guisers” or pranksters on their Hallowe’en japes. The gruesome turnip faces were used to frighten off any wayward spirits that might accost guisers on their naughty travels. Later known as jack-o’-lanterns, Christian Ireland believed each head represented a soul trapped in limbo and denied entry into either heaven or hell. After immigrating to America, the Irish and their descendants swapped turnips for the native pumpkin, as its soft flesh was much easier to carve.
Hallowe’en celebrates the ghoulish and ghostly because, in the Celtic calendar, it was the time of year when supernatural beings were most likely to roam the earth. At the end of what we call October, the doorways between our world and the spirit world opened a crack, allowing all kinds of creatures to slip through and terrorize humans. The costumes we wear were first intended as a disguise to distract the attention of meddling fairies. If the púca could not tell who you were, they could not punish you for wrongs committed against them during the year.
3. Trick or Treat?
Trick or treating began as another effort to appease the Aos Sí (fairy people). The Irish braved the nearness of the spirit world to travel farm to farm in search of offerings to win their favor. “Guising” or “Mumming” was the first version of trick or treating, as locals knocked on doors in disguise, offering songs and poems in return for goodies. Any treats received were offered to the wandering Sí to discourage them from destroying harvests and livestock as punishment for ungenerous humans.
4. Samhain, or Summer’s End
Centuries before Hallowe’en, there was Samhain – the ancient Irish feast of the dead, from which most of our ghostly traditions spring. Samhain was the most important moment in the Celtic calendar, when the summer harvest gave way to colder weather. Positioned midway between autumn equinox and winter solstice, Samhain was a time of diminishing light, with the approach of winter darkness. It was a crucial point in the year for the farming Irish, with cattle brought back from pasture to be slaughtered for their meat. With this animal fate haunting the Celtic imagination, slaughter and sacrifice became rich themes of Irish mythology, with many great events taking place at Samhain.
5. Where the Pagan and the Christian meet
Like Ireland itself, Hallowe’en is a point where pagan and Christian customs meet. As Christianity spread across Europe, many existing holidays and festivals were kept to retain the interest of new converts. In the 9th century, the Samhain period became a time for remembering the Christian dead. The Catholic Church moved their All Saints’ feast day to 1 November, with November 2nd becoming All Souls’ Day, a time for remembering loved ones who had passed. Festivals with pagan roots, like Hallowe’en, were kept to encourage the Irish to keep their spirits during cold winters of low food supplies and hard farming conditions.
Bonfires held many magical meanings during Samhain, flames of light at a time when darkness was taking hold. Bonfires were most often lit on hills and used to cleanse away the guilt associated with animal slaughter. It was also believed that fire was a protection from the Sí, who wandered under cover of darkness. The biggest bonfires were lit in places still visited by the pagan Irish today. Many still gather to celebrate Samhain at Oweynagat (translated as “cave of cats”) in County Roscommon and the Hill of Ward in Meath.
7. Games that tell the future
Divination or prophecy games are still played in Ireland during Hallowe’en, a clear echo of the island’s pagan ancestry. These games were first used to predict the greatest events in the lives of the community – marriage and death. On Hallowe’en night, an unmarried woman was encouraged to sit in an unlit room and look into a mirror to glimpse the face of her future husband. But this game was only for the brave. A skull would appear in the mirror if the woman was destined to die before she married.
8. Food that tells the future
Harvest foods – apples and nuts – were an important part of prophecy-telling games. In one popular game, apple peel was tossed over the shoulder. It was believed that the shape the peel took as it landed showed the first letter of the player’s future spouse’s name. These games survived the disapproval of Christian Ireland. Fortunes are still told with the Barmbrack fruitcake eaten in Irish homes every Hallowe’en. When the Barmbrack is baked, a ring, coin and thimble are kneaded with the dough. Those who get the ring or coin with their slice will attract love or wealth in the year ahead. But the thimble is for the unlucky, an omen of poverty to come.
9. Party like it’s Samhain
Samhain was a time of great feasting, enjoying the last of the harvest before winter took hold. And feasting was just another word for partying. Drinking mead was a big part of festivities, a tradition still upheld around the world during Hallowe’en weekend today (hic).
10. Bringing Halloween to the USA
The Hallowe’en we know today took hold in the USA with the arrival of the Irish in the 19th century. Celebrated at first by immigrant communities, it gradually spread across neighborhoods to reclaim October in the western world.