In ancient Ireland the feast of Samhain marked the threshold of the Celtic year between the bright days of summer and the darkness of winter. Near the hill of Tara in the Boyne Valley, on the hill of Tlachtga the Great Fire Festival began on the eve of Samhain and all the household fires were extinguished and relit again from the flames of the great bonfire.
The bonfire was the focus of the Samhain festival. The cattle that could not be fed for the winter were slaughtered meaning plenty of food for Samhain feasting and the bones of the slaughtered livestock were cast into the bonfire. Today bonfires are still a big part of Halloween in Ireland where every housing estate will have built a bonfire, but they are more likely to be made of wooden pallets, tyres, rubbish and anything else local teenagers can pilfer from their neighbours! Its an even bigger tradition in rural areas and its amazing to see the bonfires lighting up the Connemara coastline and especially panoramic when seen dotted along the coast from across in the Aran Islands, which is the best place to view them.
During the Samhain festival which began on Samhain’s Eve and went on to All Saints and All Souls Day the veil to the Otherworld was lifted and the spirits could walk in the world of men.
The family’s ancestors were honored and welcomed home, a place would be set for them at the feast with food laid out for them and it was bad luck to eat the food meant for the spirits. The food left out for the ancestors spirits would afterwards be shared with the poor and the less well off.
Perhaps this is a tradition we should revive instead of handing out sackfulls of unhealthy sugary food to little trick-or-treaters!!
People wore masks and costumes to disguise themselves from evil spirits. It was believed that unsettled scores could be carried over into the next life. People would dress up and go to their neighbours houses in suits and masks of straw. On Inis Mór in the Aran Islands people would go to their neighbours houses without speaking so as not to reveal their identity, and today it is still a big tradition, all the islanders dress up in the pubs in Cill Rónáin – you cannot show up without a Halloween mask!
The origin of Witches
All the crops had to be gathered before Samhain and the last sheaf of the harvest left standing was named the Cailleach meaning hag, the word we use today in Irish for a witch. The Cailleach represented the Celtic goddess Morrigan – the crone and is the origins of todays black clad witch on a broomstick. I would imagine the witches’ broomstick must be connected with that last sheaf of the harvest.
Samhain and Diwali
Interestingly Samhain coincides this year with the Hindu feast Diwali, known as the Festival of Lights. We must surmise that the two feasts have some common ancient origins.
Just like the feast of Samhain the theme of Diwali is the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil.
In India people light traditional oil lamps called diyas all over their houses to guide the goddess of wealth Lakshmi into their homes. This is similar to the Samhain tradition of welcoming the ancestors spirits and bringing the flames of the bonfire back to the house.
A big part of Diwali is family and friends sharing gifts, sweets and dried fruit. Many people give food and goods to the poor and those in need as in the Samhain tradition of giving food to the poor (which is no longer done at Halloween aside from trick or treating) so there is another connection between the two feasts.
Indians also pray for happiness and health in the future during Diwali and this corresponds to the Samhain traditions of divination and predicting the next years events that continue today with Halloween games and traditions.
Predicting the future for the year ahead
With the veil between the Otherworld and the world of the living thin, it was possible to seek information about the future from the ancestors spirits. Many rituals of divination were performed, in ancient times this would have been by the clan druid or file. In more recent centuries many of the traditional Halloween games in Ireland were about predicting the future for the year ahead such as the objects hidden in the barm brack loaf which would fortell your fortunes for the year ahead. The pea meant you would not marry, the stick meant unhappy marriage or disputes, the rag meant poverty or bad luck, the coin meant fortune or wealth and the ring meant you would marry within the year. Scraps of lead were also melted and poured through a key into a basin of water, the shape of the metal giving portents for the future.
Weather predictions for winter were made at midnight on Halloween according to the direction of the wind or by the movement of the clouds over the moon.Some of the other rituals and games are described in this lovely booklet; halloween-traditions which also contains lovely authentic recipes, stories and poems traditional in Ireland for Halloween.
Pumpkin Carving and Jack-o’-lanterns
The carving of turnips with scary faces to make jack-o’-lanterns in Ireland in the 19th century is the origin of the tradition of pumpkin carving for Halloween. I have used the booklet halloween-traditions as a source for much of this article;- it appears to be an extract from an old book written in the 50’s or 60’s as it describes how Irish children go ‘guising’ with turnip lanterns from house to house trick or treating.
Now its time to start getting the house ready to welcome those little trick-or-treaters tonight. Enjoy the ancient Irish feast of Samhain, Happy Halloween!!!
Check out the recipes, ancient legend, early irish poetry quotes, traditional Halloween games and recipes in the booklet it really is a little treasure! It even has a 9th century Irish poetry quote, but here is my own favourite;
News of Winter
News for you,
The stag roars,
High cold wind,
Low lies sun,
Short its run,
Sea waves pound.
Clumps are bare,
In grey air,
Wild goose cries.
Cold has seized,
song bird’s wing,
Ice is king,
This is my news.
Life of St. Colmcille 6th Century
(translated from Irish by Máire MacNeill)