Halloween/Samhain was the Celtic New Year
The Celts believed that the passage of a day began with darkness and progressed into the light. This is why winter a season of long, dark nights in Ireland symbolised the beginning of the year. As a result, the 1st of November, Samhain (pronounced "sow-in"), was the the Celtic New Year.
Celebrations began at sunset of the day before, October 31st. For Celts, this was a spiritual time. They believed that they were between years. And so, the line between our world and others would become blurred. Pkas (ghosts), fairies, banshees and other spirits would slip into our world. Halloween has always been spooky!
Important dates in the Celtic calendar
- Imbolc (pronounced "im-bulk" ): 1st February
- Beltaine (pronounced "bee-yawl-tinn-ah") : 1st May
- Lughnasa (pronounced "loo-na-sa") : 1st August
- Samhain (pronounced "sow-in") : 1st November
Keeping the Evil Out
To keep the evil at bay during Samhain, bonfires would be lit. Animal bones were burnt in the fires; hence the origin of the name, 'bone-fire'.
People wore masks. They did this to confuse the spirits and hide from people who disliked them. The more timid would leave food outside their front door, or by a hawthorn tree (still known as 'fairy trees' today in Ireland), hoping their goodwill would deliver them peace.
Welcoming the Dead
Of course it's not only evil souls that would visit on the 31st October. Some people believe that their dead ancestors would pop in for a visit. These people would leave a fire roaring and feasts of fresh vegetables and homemade delights for their ghostly visitors on the night!
Agricultural Significance of Samhain for Celts
There were aspects of Samhain that were distinctly real too. All crops had to be gathered in beforehand; no berries could be picked after this time, as it was said that the Pka would spit on them. Even today, in the countryside, Irish people will not eat blackberries after the first frost of the year.
Weather forecasts for the coming winter would be made according to the direction and strength of the wind at midnight on Halloween, or by the shape of clouds over the moon.
Irish Halloween Traditions
The origin of Halloween can be seen in more recent times too. In early 20th century Ireland, trick or treating was known as 'guising' - rural people dressed up in straw masks and went visiting their neighbours. They would walk from house to house without speaking, to try to conceal their identity, just for fun.
The hollowing out of a pumpkin is now a widespread practice in Ireland as well as the USA. But did you know this Halloween tradition too originated in Ireland? Without pumpkins, people used turnips instead. They were known as turnip lanterns, or ghost turnips.
If you're lucky enough to be in Ireland for Halloween, don't miss one of Ireland's biggest Halloween celebrations in Derry city. Make sure you try some traditional Irish Halloween food too:
- colcannon - mashed potato with onion and kale or cabbage;
- bairn breac - moist home-baked fruit bread served with butter;
- boxty - a potato pancake, eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner
This Halloween, when you're putting out your pumpkins (or turnips!), spare a thought for your Irish ancestors who helped create the popular holiday. Whatever you do, don't forget to leave some treats out for any visitors you might get during the night.
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash