Halloween, aka Samhain, was first celebrated in Ireland, around a thousand years ago. It was regarded as ‘The Celtic New Year’ coming from the name of a month in the ancient Celtic calendar with the festival marking the end of the summer season and the end of the harvest. The Gaelic festival became associated with the Catholic All Souls’ Day, and has influenced the secular customs now connected with Halloween.
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.
‘Halloween’ taken from the recent Greenland Whalefishers album ‘Based On A True Story’.
SAMHAIN AND ITS PLACE IN THE CELTIC CALENDAR
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 Welsh, 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 its Eve.
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.
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 (see right hand column) – spat on any unharvested apples to make them inedible.
To ward off the evil let loose at Samhain, huge bonfires were lit and people wore ugly masks and disguises to confuse the spirits and stop the dead identifying individuals who they had disliked during their own lifetime. They also deliberately made a lot of noise to unsettle the spirits and drive them away from their homes. The timid, however, would leave out food in their homes, or at the nearest hawthorn or whitethorn bush (where fairies were known to live), hoping that their generosity would 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 Dropkick Murphys performing a cover of The Misfits ‘Halloween’ live at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney on 20th October 2011.
DOWNLOAD A FREE BOOK ON HALLOWEEN
The National Folklore Collection, which is managed at University College Dublin, has published a free booklet for Halloween. It explains the origins of Halloween and explores old Irish tales, legends and customs. You can download it (pdf 950Kb) here: Dúchas – Halloween.