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The origin of Halloween lies in Celtic Ireland

The history behind Halloween. The dark side of Halloween. How our ancestors celebrated 31 October.


Halloween

Halloween in Ireland
To find the origin of Halloween, you have to look to the festival of Samhain in Ireland's Celtic past. Samhain had three distinct elements. Firstly, it was an important fire festival, celebrated over the evening of 31 October and throughout the following day. The flames of old fires had to be extinguished and ceremonially re-lit by druids.

It was also a festival not unlike the modern New Year's Day in that it carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new. To our pagan ancestors it marked the end of the pastoral cycle – a time when all the crops would have been gathered and placed in storage for the long winter ahead and when livestock would be brought in from the fields and selected for slaughter or breeding.

But it was also, as the last day of the year, the time when the souls of the departed would return to their former homes and when potentially malevolent spirits were released from the Otherworld and were visible to mankind.

Samhain: its place in the Celtic calendar

The Celts celebrated four major festivals each year. None of them was connected in anyway to the sun's cycle. The origin of Halloween lies in the Celt's Autumn festival which was held on the first day of the 11th month, the month known as November in English but as Samhain in Irish.

The original Celtic year

  • Imbolc: 1st February
  • Beltaine: 1st May
  • Lughnasa: 1st August
  • Samhain: 1st November
The festivals are known by other names in other Celtic countries but there is usually some similarity, if only in the translation. In Scottish Gaelic, the autumn festival is called Samhuinn. In Manx it is Sauin. The root of the word – sam – means summer, while 'fuin' means end. And this signals the idea of a seasonal change rather than a notion of worship or ritual.

The other group of Celtic languages (known as Q-Celtic) have very different words but a similar intention. In Wales, the day is Calan Gaeaf, which means the first day of winter. In Brittany, the day is Kala Goanv, which means the beginning of November.

The Celts believed that the passage of a day began with darkness and progressed into the light. The same notion explains why Winter – the season of long, dark nights – marked the beginning of the year and progressed into the lighter days of spring, summer and autumn. So the 1st of November, Samhain, was the Celtic New Year, and the celebrations began at sunset of the day before ie its Eve.


The Roman Autumn festival

Three young girls dressed in Halloween costumes.
Three little girls prepare for Ireland's biggest Halloween celebrations in Derry.

Harvest was celebrated by the Romans with a festival dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of the fruits of the tree, especially apples. The origin of Halloween's special menus, which usually involve apples (as do many party games), probably dates from this period.

Pomona continued to be celebrated long after the arrival of Christianity in Roman Europe. So, too, did Samhain in Ireland and it was inevitable that an alternative would be found to push pagan culture and lore into a more 'acceptable' Christian event.

Sure enough, the 7th century Pope Boniface, attempting to lead his flock away from pagan celebrations and rituals, declared 1st November to be All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows Day.

The evening before became known as Hallows' Eve, and from there the origin of Halloween, as a word, is clear.


The origin of Halloween's spookiness

For Celts, Samhain was a spiritual time, but with a lot of confusion thrown into the mix. Being 'between years' or 'in transition', the usually fairly stable boundaries between the Otherworld and the human world became less secure so that puka, banshees, fairies and other spirits could come and go quite freely. There were also 'shape shifters' at large. This is where the dark side of Halloween originated.

Apples

Samhain marked the end of the final harvest of the summer, and all apples had to have been picked by the time the day's feasting began. It was believed that on Samhain, the puca – Irish evil fairies – spat on any unharvested apples to make them inedible.

The little people

Celtic tales are full of heroic warriors and mystical gods. They are also the origin of Halloween's (and Ireland's) preoccupation with the 'little people'.

Academics have concluded that the little people were, originally, the pagan gods of Ireland who lost their significance and, metaphorically, their stature, when Christianity arrived. Despite their reduced state and retirement to the Underworld as fairies, a memory of their magical powers held fast in the imagination of the people. Here lies the origin of Halloween's dark side.

There are two main groups of fairy: the trooping fairies who are, for the most part, friendly and have healing powers, and the solitary fairy who causes mischief and is quick to anger.

Among the specific terrors of Halloween were the Fomorians who believed they had a right to take back to the Otherworld their share of fresh milk, grains and live children.

  • The Leprechaun is the best known of the latter group. More about the diminutive shoemakers.
  • The fairy most connected with the origin of Halloween is the Puca (pronounced Pooka) who is decidedly malevolent and capable of assuming any shape. The puca is particularly adept at taking animal shapes, especially horses, so riders beware on Halloween – your 'steed' may not be under your control!
  • The Banshee is another fairy, always female, who warns of approaching death by letting loose a terrible, eerie wail (the Banshee scream) that is guaranteed to send a shiver down the spine of those that hear it. If you hear the cry of the Banshee of Ireland, you should look out for a funeral carriage pulled by a headless horse.

To ward off the evil let loose at Samhain, huge bonfires were lit and our ancestors wore ugly masks and disguises to confuse the spirits and stop the dead identifying individuals who they disliked during their own lifetime.

They also deliberately made a lot of noise to unsettle the spirits and drive them away from their communities. The timid, however, would leave out food for the fairies in their homes, or at the nearest hawthorn or whitethorn bush (where fairies were known to live) hoping that their generosity would be sufficient to appease the spirits. For some, the tradition of leaving food (and a spoon to eat it!) in the home – usually a plate of champ or colcannon – was more about offering hospitality to their own ancestors.

Just as spells and incantations of witches were especially powerful at Samhain, so the night was believed to be full of portents of the future.


The origin of Halloween games

Celts looked to the future at Samhain and could see 'clues' to the year ahead in the simplest things. Even peeling an apple could provide a clue to the name of a future wife or husband; if the peel was allowed to drop to the floor as it was peeled, it would form the initial letter of the lucky spouse.

Apples also featured in the 'ducking for apples' game where the object is to retrieve an apple from a barrel or large bowl of water without using hands or feet. There was nothing particularly symbolic about the origin of Halloween games such as these. They are fun games in which all ages can participate, and apples were plentiful at this time of the year.

Most other games and 'rituals' played out at Halloween were to do with courtship. Among them was the fortune-telling bowl of Colcannon.

A ring (and sometimes a thimble, too) were mixed into a large bowl of this warming, simple dish which was placed in the middle of the table. Each person sitting around the table took a spoonful of the potato and cabbage mixture, dipping it into the well of melted butter at its centre. The person who found the ring was sure to be married within the year. The thimble denoted life without love and marriage.

The origin of Halloween 'trick or treating' seems to have been a Druid ritual of collecting eggs, nuts and apples from the individual homes of the community. These offerings were meant to bring some protection from bad luck such as damage to crops or livestock in the next year. Those that were miserly in their offerings were likely to have a trick played on them. These pranks were harmless enough. They were intended to cause confusion ie changing the direction a gate opened.


The origin of the Halloween lantern

Halloween jack o' lantern
The Devil played a part in the origin
of the Halloween Jack O'Lantern

In order to prevent unwelcome spirits entering their homes, the Celts created menacing faces out of turnips and left them on their doorsteps. Adding a lit candle to the hollowed out face gave added protection.

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

According to legend, the origin of the Halloween lantern can be found in the tale of a young smith called Jack O'Lantern who made a pact with the Devil during a gambling session. He managed to thwart the Devil and extracted a promise from him that he would never take his soul.

When he eventually died, Jack was refused entry to heaven on account of his drunken, lewd and miserly ways. The Devil, remembering his earlier promise, also refused to allow him into hell. So Jack was condemned to roam the dark hills and lanes of Ireland for eternity.

His only possessions were a turnip with a gouged out centre and a burning coal, thrown to him by the Devil. He put the coal inside the turnip to light his way through the dark countryside where he still wanders......


Ireland's best Halloween party is in Derry

Musical band dressed as skeletons.

While the origin of Halloween doesn't lie specifically in Derry, the world's biggest Halloween party is held there every year. More than 30,000 people take to the streets, most of them dressed as witches, ghouls, vampires and monsters from the Otherworld.

It's a time when you're almost certain to hear the Banshees screaming – assuming you can hear anything much above the marching bands, ceilidh music, hard rock and calypso as the carnival proceeds through the town.

Waterloo Place plays host to a free concert, and many events, including Ghost Walks, are held throughout the city before a spectacular fireworks display brings celebrations to a close. This October's Banks of the Foyle party, held during Derry's year as UK City of Culture, promises to be even more sensational. It's already underway (started 26 October) and there's a full programme of events here.

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Many thanks to Derry Visitor & Convention Bureau for permission to reproduce photos of the city's Halloween party.

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