From Samhain to Halloween
The Celts were an ancient influential society made up of loosely connected tribes that shared similar cultural beliefs and artistic styles. Amongst the traditions incorporated in Ireland, was the importance of the changing seasons and a fear, but respect for the dead. The Celts divided the year into two halves; the dark half from Samhain to Beltaine in May and the light half from Bealtaine to Samhain. Samhain which fell on 1st November was the Celtic New Year, a pastoral festival marking the end of summer and beginning of the winter period. Celebrations would begin on the 31st of October leading into the 1st.
The Spirit World
It was believed on this night (31st & 1st November) that those who died would travel to the spirit world. On that night, the division between the human world and spirit world was believed weak which allowed the dead to revisit their homes. During Samhain, people were wary of spirits, as some would cause trouble and harm their crops. Our ancestors also believed spirits could help their Druid priests foretell or predict the future.
From Ghosts to Saints
The celebrations and traditions centred around the seasons would change with the emergence of a new religion, Christianity. The Celtic Festival of Samhain wasn’t entirely abandoned but adapted to the purposes of the church. Saints and martyrs were prayed for on All Hallows Day (Hallow meaning holy), 1st of November also known as the Feast of All Saints, see image above, and the following day became known as All Souls Day, a day to pray for the dead. The 1st & 2nd of November were also known as Hallowmas or Hallowtide and a vigil was normally held on All Hallows eve (31st October). From there we can see a step towards what we now call Halloween.
Halloween Traditions In Ireland
In Ireland, it was the time of the Feile Na Marbh (Feast of the Dead), when the deceased were welcomed back into their homes to sit by the fire, see above. At the exact hour of twelve o clock, time no longer belonged to the old year or new and ghosts of those long dead would come back.Whiskey and bread were often left in the houses to revive the dead and ash from the fire was scattered around so the next morning family and friends could see their tracks.It was customary in some parts of Ireland for families to leave out food and candles to help light their way.
Mabel R. Colhoun recorded in her publication the Heritage of Inishowen; Its Archaeology, History and Folklore, that in the 1940s, during Hallowe’en (All Saints Eve). “Fires are still lit and the hearth swept; this was done recently in a deserted house where a brother and sister had died. This custom is to convenience the departed spirits”.
Predicting the Future at Halloween
Stemming from beliefs during Samhain, that the future could be foretold with the help of spirits, there are stories linking that knowledge with a price. By striking an agreement with a fairy, a member of a mythical race, you could foretell the future, but only if you gave them the sight from one eye. In doing so you could see the shades of those who would die within the coming year, when they made their way along the midnight roads under fairy supervision.
Another less risky practice of divination was bobbing for apples, see above. You would bob for an apple in a container of water and when it is caught in the teeth, peel the skin into one long strip, carry out a chant and throw the strip over your shoulder. The strip was believed to then form the first initial of your future true love. Another tradition was the eating of Barmbrack a type of fruit cake, on Halloween night. Whoever found the ring (penny originally) that was hidden in it would be the first to marry!
Hiding in Plain Sight
A tradition of Guising (disguising) was common by our ancestors before venturing out on all Hallows Eve. People would dress up to avoid the attention of wandering spirits, some even dressed up as saint’s, others as supernatural beings. Children would carve out turnips, placing candles as they travelled from house to house where they would have been given cake, fruit and nuts. Today we make carvings from pumpkins instead of turnip, which is a lot easier. Due to mass immigration in the 19th century from Ireland,UK and Europe to America, these traditions and beliefs were interpreted and incorporated into what is now accepted as Halloween, a huge part of American Culture. Pumpkins and what is popularly known as “Trick or Treat” stem from American traditions and interpretations of Halloween.
On a final note, take care out there this Halloween you never know who you might meet out Guising…