By now the costumes and masks are bought (does anyone make them anymore?). The kids here in Ireland are on their mid-term break. Suitable sites for bonfires have been identified and all sorts of fuel scavenging is underway. Teenagers -mostly boys – summon from within their visceral hunter gatherer instincts, as they strut through urban and rural landscapes in search of discarded timber and tyres. Even old couches are sought, enabling a relatively comfortable seat of repose before being added to the flames of a chilly Halloween night bonfire.
Many of you reading this will have an inkling that Halloween has its roots in ancient Celtic Pagan tradition. It was one of four seminal dates in the Celtic calendar which generally marked the turning of seasons or the end of a period of work such as the final crop of potatoes being harvested. It was also a time to mark the passing to the next world of souls from the year past.
Masks, Costumes and Bonfires – the Irish Origins of Halloween
Samhain (sow-an (use porcine pronunciation for the first bit!)) is November in the Irish language, Gaeilge (or Gaelic). Oíche Shamhna (eeha- howna) is November night. This was when traditionally the Celts crossed the seasonal threshold – leaving behind the light of Summer to enter darkness of Winter. A time when spirits and the souls of the dead – good and bad – were said to roam the countryside. Of course it had to be countryside, as two thousand years ago there were no towns in Ireland. People hung scary contraptions around the homesteads to keep evil spirits at bay. They wore masks if they had to move around, so that they could hide in plain sight and would not be recognised by potentially harmful spirits.
These masks took many forms. As you may well imagine, pumpkins tend to like a bit of sun, so aren’t terribly suited to the Irish climate. But, what you never have you never miss, so the humble turnip was commonly used – right up the the early 20th century. The turnip pictured here is displayed in Ireland’s National Museum of Country Life, which we visit on our Anam Croí Northern Ireland and Best of the West Tour.
Oíche Shamhna was also a time of celebration – fires were lit and the bones of slaughtered livestock fed the flames. As this tradition passed through the generations, household fires would be extinguished and relit with embers from this fire – hence the term ‘bonfire’.
From Celts to Monks – the transformation of beliefs in Irish Heritage
When the 5th century monks began converting the Celts to Christianity, they didn’t force them into a ‘my way or the highway’ adjustment of their beliefs. Rather, they merged ancient pagan ways into new religious dates. In modern parlance they would be termed excellent ‘change managers’! The Oíche Shamhna practices and traditions found themselves being enveloped in the cloak of All Saints Day of 1st November – with the eve of the day being celebrated. This is also where the name took a turn from Oíche Shamhna and moved towards Halloween. A saintly ‘halo’ becoming ‘hallow’ and Hallows Eve morphing into Halloween.
Bringing Ireland Global
The Irish who first emigrated to North America never lost their sense of home – be that in sadness or happiness. And so, they brought their music, song and traditions with them. Okay, we do realise and accept that Halloween isn’t quite ‘global’ (yet). But hey, if North America can lay claim to a ‘World Series’ in baseball, then sure who’d begrudge the poor oul’ Irish for taking a small bit of licence with Halloween. One has to remember, as you may have seen from our recent blogs on Irish mythology, that in Ireland we ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’.
An Irish Halloween Recipe
We leave you with a recipe for this delicious traditional Barm Brack, from Irish chef Donal Skehan. Our favourite way of eating it is, of course, slathered with good old Irish creamery butter and a cup of tea. Remember, you can enjoy and experience all the best of Ireland on one of our great 6 and 7 day small-group fully guided tours. Now, we’re off to watch Hocus Pocus – again!
Oíche Shamhna shona daoibh go léir (Happy Halloween to you all)