The History of Halloween

The History of Halloween

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Don’t be fooled by the Commercialisation of Halloween!

Halloween is Celtic and it’s definitely not new. Our forefathers were celebrating it long before Ireland was Christianised. Before there was a church in Ireland there was Halloween. Before there was Sunday Mass in Ireland there was Halloween.

Halloween is  Samhain (pronounced Sow-In), a Celtic feast to mark the onset of winter. The festival lends its name to the month it precedes; Samhain is the Irish word for November.

The modern Irish calendar follows the same tradition. Visitors to Ireland are often surprised to learn that winter is said to begin on November 1st and end on February 1st.

Samhain has been sacred since ancient times. Evidence abounds of how important this day was to our ancestors.

Close to the Hill of Tara (the ancient seat of the Irish High Kings) there is a passage tomb, similar in style to the well-known Newgrange.

The Mound of the Hostages was built nearly 5000 years ago. A  dome-shaped tomb with a narrow doorway.

On the morning of October 31st the small opening of this tomb aligns exactly with the rays of the rising sun. This perfect alignment results in the illumination of the entire chamber with autumnal orange sunshine.

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The Mound of the Hostages tomb is magically lit by the Samhain sunshine. Thanks to Mary Gibbon of Newgrange Tours for this “inside” photo

There can be no doubt that, to the people who orchestrated this spectacular event, October 31st was an auspicious day.

Early Irish literature is full of references to this mystical date. Legendary events take place or begin on the night of Samhain.

It was on the night of Samhain that the infamous Fionn Mac Cumhaill was made leader of the mythological army Na Fianna.

Why October 31st?

For the farming and herding communities of Celtic times the end of October was a busy period.  Cattle herds were driven back from the summer pastures. Annual slaughtering of herd animals took place and stock was taken of food supplies. As the harvest ended families and communities made provisions for the oncoming winter. 

Routines and rituals around the winter-preparations naturally sprung up.

At Samhain communities celebrated the end of their hard work. Offerings and possibly sacrifices were made to ward off evil spirits and pray for a mild winter.

Samhain was as spiritual as it was practical. It was a liminal period; a time when the boundary between the living and the otherworld was open. The spirits, fairies or aos sí in Irish could cross over to taunt/ play pranks or deliver messages to the living. In Irish culture fairies were and still are, feared and respected in equal measure.

Each family would leave offerings on their doorstep to appease the fairies and spirits. The tradition of dressing up in spooky costumes to Trick or Treat may have its origins in this culture.

It was believed that the  spirits of  family members who had passed on to the other world could return on this special night. These spirits could leave signs or divinations for their living relatives. A candle was placed in the window to help guide dead relatives back home. What we now call Jack-O-Lanterns were originally carved from turnips. When I was a child we never had pumpkins here in Ireland, they are new to us!

Young girls would place a piece of tissue or cloth under their pillows before bed. Dead relatives might inscribe the name of a future spouse on the tissue/cloth. I can still remember my Mam telling me to do this!

Each family had (most still do)  a Barm Brack or bairín breac in Irish, a traditional Irish fruit cake. Inside the cake a ring is hidden. The person served the slice of cake with the ring will have good fortune and perhaps marry soon.

Modern Halloween

Hundreds of thousands of Irish  fled from famine and poverty in Ireland during the nineteenth century. These immigrants were forced to leave under the most dire and desperate circumstances. When trying to make a new life in America they clung with the melancholy hearts of a lost people to the culture of their home and ancestry.

They continued to celebrate Halloween on the other side of the Atlantic. And America appeased us Irish with our Celtic habits and sad hearts. America adopted and some would say, improved our ancient festival.

The popularity of this holiday illustrates how cultures can successfully blend and enjoy each other’s heritage.

To me, modern day Halloween is the epitome of an Irish-American Festival.

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