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Halloween: Gaelic Origins And Traditions

Halloween is a time of year cherished by children and those of us grown-ups who maintain a fondness for a the macabre and the weird. From a historical point of view, however, Halloween is a fascinating time of year, where a collection of very ancient pagan traditions are mixed with later Christian elements, and those with more recent additions from Hollywood and popular culture. The Halloween traditions are Celtic in origin, and Halloween itself is thought to derive specifically from the Gaelic festival of Samhain. In this article we are going to take a look at the fascinating and sometimes spooky Irish traditions underlying the annul influx of sweet-toothed ghouls to our doorsteps.

The Christian Influence: All Hallows Day

“Halloween” means hallowed or holy evening. We first come across this word around 1745, and it is of Christian origin, referring to the eve of the feast of All Saints Day. This occasion commemorates those who have achieved the beatific vision in Heaven, honouring all the deceased saints. The origins of this occasion cannot be traced by scholars with any degree of certainty, but many have argued that it derives from a much older pagan Roman festival called the Festival of the Lemures.

Beans and Ghouls: The Festival of the Lemures

Celebrated on the 13th of May, Lemuralia was a feast in which ancient Romans sought to ward off and expel evil ghosts and spirits from their homes. The restless spirits of the dead were at this time called the lemures or larvae, and it was believed that they might be propitiated with offerings of beans. The custom held that the head of the household would rise at midnight, and walk barefoot around the house, throwing black beans over this shoulder. While doing this, he would repeat the following incantation: “I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine.” (If you are troubled with restless spirits in your house at night, and garlic and crucifixes have failed, you might try Bachelors beans as a last resort.)

On the day of Lemuralia in 609, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, prompting some historians to conjecture that All Saint’s Day evolved as an attempt to de-paganize the feast. Whether or not this is true, All Saint’s Day was celebrated at various times in its early history, until the date was moved to November 1st during the reign of Pope Gregory III (731 – 741). This means that it now coincided with the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, a feast with a similar theme to Lemuralia: warding off evil spirits and denizens of the Otherworld.


The Gaelic calender had four seasonal festivals: Imbolic, which marked the beginning of Spring, Beltane, celebrated on the first of May, Lughnasadh, celebrated at the end of the harvest season in August, and Samhain, which marked the beginnings of winter and the “dark half” of the year. Samhain was celebrated in Ireland, and later in Scotland and the Isle of Man. Frequently mentioned as a time of great importance in the earliest Irish mythic literature, the Mound of Hostages, a passage tomb at the Hill of Tara is aligned with the Samhain sunrise. Bonfires were lit on hilltop across Ireland and Britain, and it was believed that these fires were intended to mimic the sun and hold back the lack of growth and darkness incurred by the coming of winter.

They have also been intended to “burn up” and exorcise the negative influences which may have developed during the year. It was traditional for families to carry back a burning branch from the fire. In some areas, the custom was for each family to solemnly re-lit the hearth in their homes with an ember from the communal Samhain fire, thus creating a bond between the different families in the area.

One of the main aspects of Samhain which has carried over into modern Halloween is the idea that at this time of year, the barrier between our world and the next is particularly thin. Hence, it was believed to be a time when spirits roamed the countryside, and the Sidhe (faires) were up to their usual tricks with abandon. The dead were believed to return to homes, with food often left out as offerings, and places by the fire prepared for them. Other creatures associated with Samhain include the púca and the dreaded banchee.

The púca was a shape-shifter, capable of taking a human form as well as that of various animals: black horses, goats and rabbits. According the folklorist Thomas Keightley, conceptions of the púca remain “extremely vague”, their appearance bringing about either good or ill fortune to farmers and wanderers of the countryside. Samhain has particularly strong associations with the púca; it was said he spat on the wild fruits and berries in November, rendering them no longer edible. Although the púca is often depicted as a fearful creature, others present him as a bringer of good fortune.

One story, collected by Lady Wilde: a farmer’s son named Phadraig one day noticed the invisible presence of the púca brushing by, and called out to him, offering a coat. The púca appeared in the guise of a young bull, and told him to come to the old mill at night. From that time onward, the púcas came secretly at night and performed all the work of milling the sacks of corn into flour. Phadraig fell asleep the first time, but later concealed himself in a chest to catch sight of them, and later made a present of a fine silk suit. This unexpectedly caused the phoukas to go off to “see a little of the world” and cease their work. But by then the farmer’s wealth allowed him to retire and give his son an education. Later, at Phadraic’s wedding, the phouka left a gift of a golden cup filled with drink that evidently ensured their happiness.

Trick or Treat

Many Halloween traditions appear to hark back to Samhain. The tradition of children going from door to door in disguise (known as “guising”) has been recorded as early as the 16th century. During the middle ages, poor children went from door to door on All Soul’s Day (November 2), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead. The wearing of ghostly, ghoulish costumes by trick-or-treaters is thought again to derive from the Celtic traditions of Samhain, where dressing as evil spirits or mischievous faeries was seen as a way of placating or perhaps even confusing them.

Divination Games/Barnbrack

Samhain was seen as a time for looking into the future, and games of divination or fortune-telling were extremely popular. These games centred around issues close to everybody’s heart: food and courtship. Colcannon is traditional Irish dish made of spuds and cabbage mixed with milk, butter, salt and pepper, and sometimes scallions, onions or chives. In a popular Halloween game, a ring and a thimble were included in the dish.

A more complex version of this game developed around barnbrack, the much beloved Irish bread or cake. Five items were baked into the bread: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin, and ring. With these additions, the cake became a fortune-telling device: the person who got the pea in their slice wouldn’t marry that year; the stick meant an unhappy marriage or rocky future full of disputes; the cloth meant poverty; the coin wealth and good fortune; the ring meant that the person would be married within the year. Assumably, swallowing any of these objects meant bad luck, at least in the immediate future.

Stingy Jack The Origins of the Jack-O’-Lantern

The jack-o’-lantern – a pumpkin or turnip carved with a face and lit from within with a candle – is one of the most instantly recognisable symbols of Halloween around the world. Although there is no scholarly agreement on the issue, it is widely believed that the tradition originated in Ireland, with the grinning face carved in turnips or beets used instead of the now iconic orange pumpkin. Whatever the truth of the matter, a very entertaining myth accounts for the Irish origin of the jack-o’- lantern: the tale of Stingy Jack.

According the legend, Stingy Jack was a notorious drunkard and scoundrel, known for his verbal dexterity and slyness as a trickster. The Devil was intrigued by these rumours, and decided to discover first-hard if Jack lived up his reputation. One night, when Jack was wandering home through the countryside (drunk as usual) he discovered a body on the path he was walking. The body turned out to be the Devil, and Jack, fearing he had come to claim his immortal soul, made a final request: that the Devil would buy him a few pints before his final journey below.

So they adjourn to the nearest public house, and when it comes time to pay for the drinks, Jack challenges the Devil to transform himself into a silver coin, and cleverly drops the devil into his pocket, where a crucifix keeps him trapped. Jack frees the Devil on condition that he will spare Jack’s soul for ten years.#

Ten years later, the Devil returns, eager to reclaim Jack’s soul. This time, as they are on route to the Underworld, Jack stops at an apple-tree and asks the Devil to get him one last apple to feed his starving belly. The foolish (and surprisingly good-natured) Devil agrees, and once he climbs the tree, Jack surrounds its base with crucifixes. Trapped again, the Devil is this time forced to forfeit Jack’s soul for all eternity.

Mexico: The Day of the Dead

The common element between the Christian All Saint’s Day and the pagan Samhain is that both are concerned, in different ways, with remembering and celebrating the dead. With the chill of winter closing in, and darkness each day growing longer, it was natural that people turned their minds to the plight of their ancestors, and the mysteries of the transition between the world of the living and that of the dead. Samhain  was perceived as a time where these two worlds came together briefly, and the living rubbed shoulders with their ancestors. Around the world, similar festivals and feasts cluster around this year. They provide an opportunity to face the shadow of death with an attitude of humour, pageantry, and celebration. One such celebration is the Mexican Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

This holiday is based around a similar belief to that underlying Samhain: that on the 31st of October, the gates of heaven are opened and the spirits of our ancestors walk among us. It provides families with an opportunity to pray for their deceased relatives and aid them their journey in the next world. Elaborate alters called ofrendas are established in every home, well stocked with offerings of flowers and food and drink for the weary passing souls. On the 2nd of November, a celebration convenes in the cemetery, where graves are cleaned, stories told, while a local band plays music.

One of the most striking aspects of the Day of the Dead is the colourful and amusing imagery of skulls and skeletons which have come to define the holiday. The use of decorative skulls has a long history, having antecedents in the Celtic Samhain and in a Mexican context, in the pottery of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltecs. La Calavera Catrina (the Dapper  or Elegant Skull) was a zinc engraving made sometime between 1910 and 1913 by the Mexican print-maker and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. It depicted a female skull wearing a elegant hat of the upper-classes. Over time this elegant skeleton, christened Katrina, has become an icon of the Day of the Dead celebrations.

According to Posada himself, “La Catrina has become the referential image of Death in Mexico, it is common to see her embodied as part of the celebrations of Day of the Dead throughout the country; she has become a motive for the creation of handcrafts made from clay or other materials, her representations may vary, as well as the hat.” The calavera is everywhere during the Day of the Dead, particularly in edible form, made with sugar cane or chocolate, and decorated with items such a coloured foil, icing, beads, and feathers.

Like the ghoulish costumes worn by children trick-or- treating, the colourful skulls of the Day of the Dead represent a way of approaching our gravest fears in an attitude of playful celebration. Though Halloween has now become extremely commersialized, it represents the presistence of some very old traditions, which are spread out throughout the world, and many of which have a specifically Celtic and Irish origin.



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