Of course, the Irish really invented Halloween. The three high days of Halloween (All Hallows Eve), All Saints Day and All Souls Day originated as the pagan celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow –like the female pig – in). In the ancient Irish, or Celtic, calendar, Samhain marked the beginning of winter as well as the New Year.
In our post-industrial age, especially to those living in more temperate climate zones, it can be hard to figure out how the beginning of November (which is called Samhain in the Irish language) could be winter. But to our agrarian ancestors this was the time of slaughtering the cattle that they could not feed over winter. Some would be preserved to feed the family over the lean cold months. But some were reserved for this special New Year’s feast where the community celebrated the end of the agricultural year and the lull in the frantic pace of work during the rest of the year.
While winter solstice is technically the shortest day of the year I always feel that Samhain/Halloween is when we feel the darkness closing in. It feels darker to me in these final days of October than in the run up to Christmas. If there is a new moon and cloud, which is not unusual for these autumnal days, the night sky is like a black velvet backdrop. With freezing weather you get clear starry nights; the nights before the frosts set in are some of the most profoundly dark of the year. This sets the spooky scene for one of those 'thin time' in the Celtic calendar.
As one of the ‘cross quarter’ days in the Celtic calendar it qualified as a fire festival. Bonfire parties and fireworks still play a large part of Halloween celebrations worldwide. The fire festivals were also considered ‘thin times’ when the spirits, fairies and the ancestors were close to us in this world. One of the reasons that we dress up our kids in costumes was originally to fool any mischievous or malicious fairies from stealing particularly beautiful children. Since, as we all know, all children are beautiful, precautions must be taken to dress them up as terrifying, horrible characters to fend off any otherworldly swaps!
Because it was a ‘thin time’ it is easier to communicate with the Other World, divination and prognostication are traditional part of the festivities. While many may remember bobbing for apples in their youth, did you try to peel the skin of an apple in one seamless slice? The object of the game was to get one long slice, throw it over your shoulder, and then see what letter was formed by the peel. This was said to indicate the name of the person destined as the peeler’s future spouse.
While pumpkin jack o lanterns are the main Halloween icon, originally the lanterns were carved from turnips. Now this was not the white turnip. The Irish turnip is the vegetable known as a swede to the British and rutabaga to North Americans. If you think carving a pumpkin is a challenge I commend the humble Irish ‘turnip’ for creating a jack o lantern! You might want to get out the power tools!
But our ancestors were a hardy lot! They welcomed in the Celtic New Year at Halloween and first footed in the January New Year as well. Halloween is a good time to ‘let go’ of things rather than make resolutions. Do a bit of clearing out, symbolic or literal, at Halloween and maybe the January resolutions will last the calendar year!
How will I celebrate Halloween in Ireland? Believe it or not, for the first time in years I am getting costumed for a karaoke evening! It will be held in Enniskillen, Fermanagh, which has some of the best Halloween firework displays in the north of Ireland. Since I am dressing up as a witch, it probably is appropriate to accessorize with not only a birch besom but a divination card pack, the Druid Animal Oracle, being my Halloween tradition. Best to get the low down on what the Celtic New Year will bring.