Ghoulish greetings from Ireland and Happy Halloween weekend everyone! This weekend will see people all over the globe donning costumes, trick or treating and carving Jack o Lanterns. But did you know it all began right here! Yes, the land that gave you Guinness, Riverdance, the tractor, the submarine and Tayto crisps is also the place that gave birth to Halloween! It all began with an ancient Celtic festival…..
Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival which marks the end of the Celtic year and the harvest season. In fact, the 4500 year old Mound of the Hostages passage tomb at the Hill of Tara is aligns with the rising sun at Samhain. This suggests that Samhain held significance even before the arrival of the Celts.
At this time of year it was believed that the division between the spirit world and that of mere mortals was at it’s most fragile, therefore allowing spirits to roam the earth more freely.
While the arrival of Christianity saw this pagan festival being incorporated into the Christian calendar, many of the customs and rituals we associate with Halloween have their roots firmly planted in pagan Celtic Ireland.
Halloween Customs & Rituals
1. Wearing Costumes
The origins of wearing costumes at Halloween can be traced back to Samhain. People would gather round bonfires in animal skins and masks. Evil spirits wandering the earth would be warded off by these disguises. Consequently, mere mortals would be allowed to go free.
At Samhain, Winter fires would be lit on hilltops. The bones of livestock would be burnt also. Hence the word bonfire, as in “fire of the bones”. People would put out their hearth fires and re-light them from the embers of the communal bonfires. This was believed to bring good fortune. The ashes from the bonfires would also be scattered of this the fields to protect future crops from evil spirits.
3. Jack O Lanterns
So you know it’s Halloween when the carved pumpkins start to appear! One story traces this back to the ancients Celts yet again. People would hollow out a turnip to bring home the embers of the communal bonfire. The turnip was replaced by the pumpkin thanks to our American cousins.
Anothet other tale comes much later and involves a character called Stingy Jack who made a pact with the Devil and in turn tricked the Devil and didn’t keep his side of the bargain. When Jack died, God would not allow such a man into heaven and the Devil did not want him in Hell so Jack was condemned to wander the earth as lost soul forevermore with only a burning coal to light his way which he kept in a turnip. In Ireland and Scotland, people would make their own Jack O Lanterns to keep Jack and other evil spirits at bay!
4. Trick or Treat
Hordes of Irish immigrants made their way to America in the 1800s. They made sure to bring their traditions with them and keep them alive in this new land. While the term “Trick or Treat” was most definitely born in the US, it’s origins can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages.
The tradition of “mumming” or “guising” involved a troop of players going from door to door and performing plays or songs in exchange for food. At Halloween they would dress as the dead spirits. To give food or drink in exchange for these performances or prayers was thought to protect your household from evil spirits.
I do hope that wherever you are, you are able to mark the occasion safely with your loved ones. Have fun!
Take care of yourselves and each other,
Slán go fóill!