As millions of children and adults participate in the fun of Halloween on the night of October 31st, few will be aware of its ancient Celtic roots in the Samhain (Samain) festival.
In Celtic Ireland about 2,000 years ago, Samhain was the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter). At Samhain the division between this world and the other world was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through.
Christianity incorporated the honouring of the dead into the Christian calendar with All Saints (All Hallows) on November 1st, followed by All Souls on November 2nd. The wearing of costumes and masks to ward off harmful spirits survived as Halloween customs. The Irish emigrated to America in great numbers during the 19th century especially around the time of famine in Ireland during the 1840’s. The Irish carried their Halloween traditions to America, where today it is one of the major holidays of the year. Through time other traditions have blended into Halloween, for example the American harvest time tradition of carving pumpkins.
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianised feast influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain. Because many Western Christian denominations encouraged, although most no longer require, abstinence from meat on All Hallows’ Eve, the tradition of eating certain vegetarian foods for this vigil day developed, including the consumption of apples, colcannon, cider, potato pancakes, and soul cakes.
— Queen Meave (@MeaveofConnaugh) October 31, 2019
The traditions of Halloween or Oiche Samhain were taken by Irish Emigrants to America where they were celebrated to provide a link with their former land and then, in the American way, commercialised and re-exported to the world. Oiche Samhain was a brief window of time when the veil is rent, when the dead and living engage, not typically felicitously. This is, in effect. the approaching time, when, in the Irish worldview, the dead have access to the living.
Consumed with fear that they might be carted away to the land of the dead, the Irish lit huge bonfires to ward off evil forces and to encourage the return of the sun. The real reason for the celebration however, was the fact that Oiche Samhain or the eve of Samhain, had passed for another 12 months, for Oiche Samhain was a dangerous night indeed. It was the holiday of the dead which finds echoes in the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico and the Feast of All Hallows (All Souls) in Christianity. Halloween is the Eve of the Feast of All Hallows.
Halloween is a bit like Pizza. It was taken from its home country to America, blinged up and then exported worldwide. How many realise as the go around “Trick and Treating” that they are paying homage to the Celtic Pagan Festival of Samhain? Oiche Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. It is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, or about halfway between the Autumn equinox and the Winter solstice.
Hallowe’en seems to have grown around the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, marking the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the dark half. All Hallows’ Eve, has over the years moved from the Celtic Festival of Samhain to trick-or-treat. Samhain was the time of the final harvest of the beasts of the field, and the crops, in preparation of winter provisions, the eve of Winter’s first day, and the beginning of the next Wheel of the Year.
The Celts lived in pre-Roman Ireland, Britain, and parts of greater Northern Europe. On November 1st (of our calendar – the Celts used a lunar calendar) the Celtic Wheel of the Year turned. Samhain was the night prior – the day the old year died. On this day, the Celts believed the veil between this world and the “other side” thinned. This had several important effects. The otherworldly spirits, in all their omniscience, could aid in divination rituals. “Magic” was a daily fact of life for the Celts, and these predictions were no fortune cookie curiosities – they were an important source of drive and comfort, helping them get through the long winter.
In addition to this, there were less-desirable spirits from the Otherworld that could cross over to meddle with the villagers and destroy crops. In order to dispel these angry spirits, the Celts would light sacred bonfires – usually two, as they would walk between them to cleanse their bodies and spirits of the bad energies of the past year – and wear costumes of animal skins and blue or black dye in order to look more like a spirit, and thus not attract attention. Crops and animals would often be cast into the fires as sacrifices to the Celtic deities in thanks for a bountiful harvest, and in hopes that the goddesses and gods would protect the remaining crops from the angry otherworld spirits. Other animals would be slaughtered, their bones cast into the fire, and the meat cooked in order to store for the winter. At the end of the night of festivities, they carried home coals of the sacred fire in hollowed-out turnips to light the new years’ flame in the hearth that had been extinguished
To the Celts Samhain marked one of the two great doorways of the Pagan Year, the other being Beltane on May 1. They held a ‘dumb’ or ‘silent’ supper in remembrance of those who passed over, placing a setting of food and drink for them at the family dinner table, or just simple cakes and wine.
In medieval Ireland, Samhain became the principal festival, celebrated with a great assembly at the royal court in Tara, lasting for three days. After being ritually started on the Hill of Tlachtga, a bonfire was set alight on the Hill of Tara, which served as a beacon, signalling to people gathered atop hills all across Ireland to light their ritual bonfires. The custom has survived to some extent, and recent years have seen resurgence in participation in the festival.
In keeping with the spooky theme, here are some of our visitors best unexplained #ghost pics! @pure_cork @corkbeo #Cork #halloween2019 #Halloween #Haunted #HappyHalloween #HalloweenTODAY #afterdark pic.twitter.com/9x3kR7U6Zb
— SpikeIslandCork (@SpikeIslandCork) October 31, 2019
The name Hallowe’en is a shortening of All Hallows’ Even, or All Hallows’ Evening. All Hallows is an old term for All Saints’ Day (Hallow, from the Old English “halig”, or holy, compared with Saint, from the Latin “Sanctus”, also meaning holy, or consecrated). In the original Old English, it was known as Eallra Hālgena aefen. This comes from a Christian move by Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV to end the pagan Samhain festivals, by moving the feast of All Saints from May to 1 November.
There is a long tradition of the Christian Church taking other’s iconography and calling it their own! They even took the History of the Jewish People and called it the Old Testament. They took over the Basilicas of the Cult of Mithras which, like Christianity, had at its centre redemption through blood sacrifice. When they took over the Roman Basilicas after Constantine the Great made it the state religion of the Roman Empire they replaced the statues of Jupiter with those of Christos (The anointed one – a title used by the Pharaohs of Egypt as in Ptolemy VI Eucharistos on the Rosetta Stone) and changed the inscription from “J.O.M.” (Jovis Omnia Maximus) to “D.O.M.” (Deo Omnia Maximus). They even kept the gold disc behind Jupiter which represented his position as the Sun God (Helios) and depicted their images with the “Halo” as a sign of sanctity. So the Nazarenes have some form in this area, indeed after celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in early summer for the first 400 years or so they then purloined the Roman Feast of Saturnalia on the 25th December near to the Winter solstice which was associated with feasting and merriment. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 AD) recorded that some Christians of the time placed his birth date in April (see Stromata I:21). Hippolytus (d. 236 AD) may have believed that Jesus was born on April 2nd.
The celebration of Halloween survived most strongly in Ireland. It was an end of summer festival, and was often celebrated in each community with a bonfire to ward off the evil spirits. Children would go from door to door in disguise as creatures from the underworld to collect treats, mainly fruit, nuts and the like for the festivities. These were used for playing traditional games like eating an apple on a string or bobbing for apples and other gifts in a basin of water, without using your hands. Salt might be sprinkled on the visiting children to ward off evil spirits. Carving turnips as ghoulish faces to hold candles became a popular part of the festival, which has been adapted to carving pumpkins in America.
The classic Hallowe’en jack-o’-lantern, a carved grinning pumpkin, is both a new and an ancient practice. Originally, it seems to have come from an old Irish legend of a man called Stingy Jack, a miserly farmer who played a trick on the devil and as punishment was cursed to wander the earth, lighting his way with a candle inside a hollowed-out turnip. When the tradition moved to America pumpkins were used instead of turnips, as they were both more available and easier to carve.
So this Halloween, as we Trick and Treat, let us acknowledge the contribution of the Pagans of Ireland to popular culture not to mention 100s of terrible Halloween B Movies!! Watch out for the Ghosties and Ghoulies and ‘tings which go bump in the night!
For more about the rituals of the Celts and the great Celtic sites of Newgrange and Brú na Bóinne see;