Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween, its Irish roots

As millions of children and adults prepare to participate in the fun of Halloween on the night of October 31st, few will be aware of its ancient Celtic roots in the Samain or in modern Irish Samhain (p. S-owin) festival. In Celtic Ireland about 2,000 years ago, Samhain was the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter). At Samhain the division between this world and the otherworld (world of the dead) was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through. Samhain occurs on Nov 1st and was one of the great fire festivals, it marked the start of the Celtic new year.

On the eve of Samhain families invited the spirits of their ancestors home and honoured them whilst harmful spirits were warded off. Evil spirits would search the world of the living looking for souls to carry back with them to the otherworld. The best defence against the evil spirits was to pretend to be one and thus the evil ones would pass one over and continue searching for a victim (i.e. someone not in costume! You have been warned). So began the modern Halloween tradition of dressing in scary costumes. A tradition dating back millennia and brought by Irish emigrants firstly to Scotland and later to North America and now the four corners of the Earth.

Bonfires and food played a large part in the festivities. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into a communal fire, household fires were extinguished and started again from the bonfire. (This is where the term "Bone fire" originates) The ritual symbolises the death of the old year and the birth of the new.

Food was prepared for the living and the dead. As the dead were in no position it eat it, it was ritually shared with the less well off.

Christianity incorporated the honouring of the dead into the Christian calendar with All Saints (All Hallows) on November 1st, followed by All Souls on November 2nd. The wearing of costumes and masks to ward off harmful spirits survived as Halloween customs. The Irish emigrated to America in great numbers during the 19th century especially around the time of famine during the 1840's. The Irish carried their Halloween traditions to America, where today it is one of the major holidays of the year.

Through time other traditions have blended into Halloween, for example the American harvest time tradition of carving pumpkins has travelled back across the atlantic. Originally the Irish made Jack-o'-lanterns out of turnips or beet but nowadays pumpkins are much easier to carve.

Two hills in the Boyne Valley were associated with Samhain in Celtic Ireland, Tlachtga and Tara. Tlachtga was the location of the Great Fire Festival which begun on the eve of Samhain (Halloween). Tara was also associated with Samhain, however it was secondary to Tlachtga in this respect.

We call it a Celtic festival because Samhain is a Celtic word but the celebration of Samhain is pre-Celtic. The entrance passage to the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara is aligned with the rising sun around Samhain. The Mound is 4,500 to 5,000 years old, suggesting that Samhain was celebrated long before Celtic culture arrived in Ireland about 2,500 years ago.

A traditional Irish turnip Jack-o'-lantern dating from the early 20th century is on display in the Museum of Country Life, in Castlebar, Co. Mayo. If you are not easily scared you can have a look at a picture of it here!

Image: modern celebrations of Samhain at Tlachtga (Hill of Ward) near Athboy, Co Meath is 12 miles from the Hill of Tara. The earthworks which are about 150 metres in diameter are most impressive from the air. Tlachtga dates from approximately 200 AD and was the location of the Great Fire Festival begun on the eve of Samhain (eve of the 1st November).