Halloween & The Ancient Celtic Festival of Samhain
I hope I find you all well. On Monday, people all around the world will be dressing up as ghouls and witches, trick or treating, lighting pumpkin lanterns and apple-bobbing as we celebrate Halloween. So where did it all start? In Ireland of course! Yes, the land that gave you Guinness, Riverdance, the tractor, the submarine and Tayto crisps is also the place that gave birth to Halloween as we know it. It all began with an ancient Celtic festival…..
The roots of Halloween are firmly planted in ancient pagan Ireland. Samhain was the festival that marked the end of the Celtic year, the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter and the darker half of the year. In ancient Celtic terms, 31 October would have been the equivalent of New Year’s Eve. It was believed that at this time of year the division between this world and the otherworld was at it’s most fragile, allowing spirits to pass through more easily.
The entrance passage at Mound of the Hostages ancient passage tomb at the Hill of Tara is aligned with the rising sun at Samhain. This passage tomb is in the region of 4500 years old suggesting that Samhain was celebrated way before the Celts came along.
With the advent of Christianity this ancient festival became incorporated into the Christian calendar as All Hallows Eve, honoring the dead on the eve of All Saints Day. Many customs and rituals associated with this ancient festival survive to this day.
At Samhain, Winter fires would be lit on hilltops. It was thought the fires would ward off evil spirits and help the weakening sun on it’s journey across the skies. The bones of livestock would be burnt which is where the word bonfire comes from, as in “fire of the bones”. People would put out their hearth fires and re-light them from the embers of the communal bonfires for good fortune. The ashes from the bonfires would also be scattered on the fields to protect future crops from evil spirits.
Again, the origins of donning costumes at Halloween can be traced back to Samhain when people would gather round the bonfires in animal skins and masks. It was thought that evil spirits who may be wandering the earth would be warded off and discouraged by these disguises and the mere mortals would go free.
Trick or Treat
When hordes of Irish and Scots immigrants made their way to America in the 1800s, they brought their Halloween traditions with them. The term “Trick or Treat” was born in the US but it’s origins are to be found as far back as the Middle Ages in Ireland and Scotland and the traditions of “mumming” or “guising” which involved going from door to door and performing plays or songs in exchange for food. At Halloween they would dress as the dead spirits and to give food or drink in exchange for these performances or prayers was thought to protect your household from evil spirits.
Jack O Lanterns
Nothing says it’s Halloween more than the sight of an illuminated carved out pumpkin with a spooky face. One story traces this back to the ancients Celts once more, where people would hollow out a turnip to bring home the embers of the communal bonfire.
The 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. When this tradition was brought to the US, our American cousins started using pumpkins to make the lanterns which remain Halloween’s most popular symbol to this day.
Ok so this tradition became popular in Ireland who in turn brought it to the States but it’s origins can be traced back to Roman times. When the Romans conquered Britain, they brought with them the apple tree which symbolized the goddess of fruit trees Pamona. A yearly custom involved young single people attempting to bite apples floating in water or suspended from strings without touching them. The first one to bite the apple would be the next to marry and it was believed that girls who put their bobbed apples under their pillows would dream of their future love!
Halloween in Derry
These days, if you happen to be in Ireland for Halloween, then the place to be is definitely Derry! Derry city was recently voted the best Halloween destination in the world, beating off competition from Sleepy Hollow and Transylvania! The whole city comes out and takes over the streets in all their spooky finery. They certainly know how to party here and the atmosphere at their Halloween festival is second to none!
Whatever you’re doing this Halloween, I hope you all have a spooktacular time!
See you next week,
Slán go fóill!