Halloween, that night when the ghouls, ghosts and daemons which comes to us every autumn/fall; but what do we actually know about it. Is how we remember Halloween shaped by Hollywood and modern fashions or our  traditions carried through the centuries.

Halloween as we know it can be traced back to the pre-Christian Druidic festival of Samhain. With the name of Halloween coming only since about the 7th century with the Feast of All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day, On 1 November each year the night before becoming All Hallow’s eve or ‘een, eventually. All soul’s day is celebrated on November 2 each year and was first celebrated about 100 years after All Saints’ Day.  The initiation of this feast-day was as attempt to further bury pagan customs and replace them with Christian celebrations. With this holiday the festival of Samhain and the old Roman festival of Pomona (Roman harvest festival with non of the darker sides of Samhain) were mingled into the sands of history.

The festival of  Samhain, was one of the pre-eminent religious festival of the old Celtic calendar. The word “Samhain” itself means “summer’s end”. It was a harvest festival which marked the end of summer and the start of the winter season, the dark time. It was celebrated from  the sunset on the October 31 through the following day, November 1.

Samhain was one of the four special festivals spread  through-out the Celtic year to make the passage of the seasons and time. It also celebrated certain social practices necessary for  Celtic society.The four festivals were ; Imbolc on the 1st February. This festival has now largely been assigned to the footnotes of history, with Lá Fhéile Bríde, Saint Bridget’s day now celebrated at this time. The Spring festival of Beltaine, on the 1st May is still remembered and is today used as a celebration of “Creativity as we age”, a week or so of activities to celebrate the contribution made to the arts and society by older members of the community. The Festival of Lúnasa which takes place on the first of August has also been revived and is essentially an arts festival which is Sligo based[1]

The original festival of Samhain was a lot more than the Halloween we see today, with a far more significant message.

Samhain began with the Festival of Fire on the evening of 31 October, possibly in honour of the sun god Móg Ruith . At this time all fires in the country would be ceremoniously quenched only for a sacred fire to be lit on the Hill of Tlachtga by the High-King, the flame from this used to light torches which would bring the new year’s flame to the corners of the country. The food consumed during Samhain would be cooked on these new fires. This was essentially the New Year’s festivity, the old year was quenched out to allow the new to begin. The year’s crops having been  harvested and stored. The livestock was also brought in at this stage with any animals to be slaughtered for food in the winter ahead selected and readied for slaughter, when it would come. Fruits and other crops were also to be harvested by this date with the folklore being that any fruits or berries left on harvested by this day would be bewitched and inedible.

The passage of the year from old to new  is perhaps the part of Samhain which we remember most. Whereas we see the day as starting with dawn, the Celts saw it as starting when dark and progressing to light. This concept they also took to their calendar. The dark nights of November would eventually give way to the bright days of  spring and summer.  There was also the spiritual side to the festival. This time of transition between years was also a time of transition between world, this one and the next. It was a time when spirits would return to visit family members and others with messages, some good, some bad.  At this time it was felt that those ghosts and spirits were on their journey  to the Otherworld, but had some last message or function to perform. In many cases these spirits were not seen as bad or malevolent. Dead ancestors who left this world for the other during the previous year were invited to homes and treated as guests of honour. Food was prepared for both the living and the dead, the food prepared symbolically for the ancestors was shared with the poorer members of society.

Note: the legends which the author grew up with suggested that although the appearance of a ghost at this time may bring bad news with it, it was the news that was bad, not the ghost and indeed it was felt that the bringing of bad news by a ghost was not a harbinger of doom  but rather a warning, a chance to possible prevent foretold events from occurring.  Of course families being families and people being people meant that not all of these ghostly visits were welcome, indeed some were to settle old scores. To prevent this the living would often dress up in costumes and masks to prevent the dead from recognising those they come to communicate with.

The importance of Samhain can be seen in the surviving burial mounds at Tlachtga ( the home of the fire festival on the eve of Samhain)  and Tara.   The famous Mound of the Hostages has its entrance passage aligned with the rising Samhain  The importance of this is the age of the Mound; being 4,500 to 5,000 years old, it predates Celts by about 2000 years. This shows us that the time associated with Samhain was noteworthy even to those people who populated Ireland even before the Celts who are understood to have arrived in Ireland around 2,500 years ago.

Faced with the decline of the sun as the months carried on the bonfire was seen as a way of assisting the sun at this time of the year when it was seen to be at it weakest and most vulnerable.  It was at this time that Donn, the Lord of the Underworld was sufficiently strong to walk freely upon the earth with his followers of ghosts, faeries and other creatures.  Donn is said to have been a Milisean ( a mythical race who invaded the island millennia ago), who was killed through the Druids tricking him to head in to a storm with his ship. Legend says he and a number of his followers are buried on Skellig Michel (a world heritage site because of the early Christian monastery on the island).

Given his rank  in life he became the Lord of Death in the after-life. It was said that the souls of the dead gathered at Skellig when travelling to and from the underworld. Legends tell of fishermen hearing strange boats in the night heading to and from the islands, the names of the dead being called out as they land on Skellig about to travel between worlds.

Just as the Druids marked the passing of the light and the closeness between both worlds at this time it was only natural that this festival also marked the dead. The say Samhain is suspended in time given its links with the old and new year but also the link between both worlds. Whereas ghosts may have returned with messages there were still a lot of others in the underworld which might return purely for bedevilment; minor gods, faeries and others. You would want to hide yourself from these folks.

It is possibly a sign of the confidence of the ancient Celts in their belief of  good over evil, of rebirth that at the very time when the linkages between this world and the underworld were at their strongest, all fires were quenched until re-lit, for this night there was very little to protect against those visitors from the underworld who might be up to mischief. The relighting of the fires symbolised the conquering of light over dark, life over death. With the fires re-lit, the spirits who would be welcomed to a home could come and go safely and with no risk to their human hosts. Just as we leave out food for Santa Claus, so did our ancestors for those who returned that night. The fires would warm the visiting ghosts, they would know hospitality and the human hosts would not have it said that they treated their ancestors with anything less than reverence.  The human  hosts just had to make sure that those visitor s from the underworld had no old scores to settle, if they did, Samhain was the night they got settled.

Some suggest that the “trick or treat” aspect of the modern Halloween reflects this with the visiting children dressed as the ghosts and fed by us with some of the offering we left out. This offering would also appease less friendly ghosts and spirits. Anger them by not offing food and the angered ghosts would ensure there was a year of bad-luck upon the household.

The time of Samhain was a boundary time, between summer and autumn, between light and dark, this world and the next; and so it was only logical that this would spill into the human world. The boundaries between one person’s land and another’s were seen as favourite places for these ghostly visitors to assemble, likewise bridges and crossroads. Of course burial grounds were also places to be avoided this night more than ever.  The importance of  “managing” the dead can also be seen in the practice of burying dead Druids. If a Druid died during the year, he would only be partially buried, covered in stones to prevent animals taking the body away. On the night of Samhain the Druid’s corpse would be unburied and burned on the Samhain bonfire.

Samhain also marked the end of the military year. The Fianna would “hang-up” their weapons for the winter, enemies vanquished and food hunted for the winter months. We can also see in the legends of Fionn Mac Cumhail, Cuchulainn and others that Samhain figures prominently in the legends, fixing times and places for the stories and contexts.

Modern Halloween is a product of 19th century emigration   from Ireland and England to places such as the US, where the old customs and traditions were often held on to with a sense of nostalgia and merged with a myriad other  cultures and traditions  to give us the pop-culture, family friendly festival we know today.

The trick or treat visitations can be seen as the visits of the year’s deceased back to their families and our need to treat them with respect. The general approach of  fancy dress, may be seen as an attempt to avoid less than friendly ghosts and faeries.  Even the bonfires we light bring us back thousands of years to the celebration of light over darkness, new over old, good over evil.There  is much made of potential human sacrifices at this and other times of year, but the evidence would suggest that the sacrifices were usually symbolic with milk and corn or other foods being offered.

It was a time of  the puchí (ghosts),  the bean sidhe and faeiries.  This was the only night of the year a human can kill a bean sidhe (for what ever reason), but it was also the night when humans could see the great palaces of the faery aristocracy. But as with anything dealing with the faery folk there was a sting in the tale.  Visiting humans would be guests in the homes of these great faeries, eating and drinking what was on offer, the openness of the hospitality was even extended to the female companions of the faery Lords. This could be done on this night only, and only if all of the rules were obeyed, if not, they would be trapped there. Sounds like a risk people could take, except that the rules and regulations were such that the chances of messing up and suffering the wrath of the faery fold outweighed the chance of success.

Halloween traditions

Samhain was not just about the dead or the past year, but also about looking to the future, omens and signs had a particular strength and meaning on this night. An apple peel falling to the floor might make the first letter of a potential spouse coming in the year ahead.

Another aspect of Samhain or Halloween which developed is the playing of games. These may not all be linked to the ancient spirits. The ducking  for apples for example is seen these days as just a game, it may have been a convenient way of doing away with some excess stock at the end of harvest.

Looking to the future there was, is still,  the ritual of the ring hidden in a pan of brack – a fruit loaf baked for this time of year. Variations of this include rings being placed in foods such as colcannon. If you find the ring, you will be married within the year. A coin is also placed in the mixture, signifying wealth and riches in the year ahead.

Although the pumpkin is not a typical Irish foodstuff , there still might be  a route to the pumpkin lanterns through Samhain.  It is said tha the ancients produced menacing faces out of turnips and hung them from gates posts and doorways to prevent unwanted visitors from the underworld. Adding a candle to this face added to its power and visibility.

In modern times, pumpkins are used. They’re considerably easier to carve, and a lot bigger, too, but they are not native to Ireland.

Legend has it that the Halloween lantern that we know today, comes from a game of cards. Jack  O’Lantern made a deal with the devil and strangely enough managed to better him, he got the Devil to agree never to take his soul. That was all well and good until Jack died and his licentiousness, gambling and general poor living meant that he was turned away at the gates of Heaven. The Devil honoured his side of the deal and did not take Jack  in to Hell, the result was that he now wonders the lanes and by-ways of Ireland for all eternity with nothing but a turnip which with a hollowed centre holding a burning l ember from hell thrown to him by the Devil.

The legends of Halloween will continue to grow for as long as we celebrate the holiday, but at the end of the day,  it is what it is, a tradition still alive today in its modern form which stretches back into the dark shadows of time, a time of light and dark this world and the next.

[1] http://www.sligotoday.ie/details.php?id=26877

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