The Festival of Samhain
Did you know that many of the scary modern traditions we have at Halloween come from an ancient Irish festival?
Samhain was an old Celtic pagan festival in Ireland and celebrated the moment of division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter). At this time of the year, the division between our world and the ‘Otherworld’ was at its thinnest and so this allowed spirits to pass through into our world. A family’s dead ancestors would be honoured and invited back home while people also tried to protect themselves from harmful spirits who might attack them.
Christianity incorporated a similar honouring of the dead into the Christian calendar at this time of year with All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1st and 2nd
Read about the origins of five Halloween traditions below.
1. Wearing a mask
People wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves and thus avoid harm during this time. If evil spirits were wandering the earth and met one of the Celts wearing a scary mask or disguise, they wouldn’t recognise them as human, would think they were also spirits and let them go free. The wearing of costumes and masks survives today in us dressing up in our Halloween costumes.
2. Lighting big outdoor bonfires
In Celtic times, communities would gather together and light huge fires to keep away bad fortune for the coming year. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into the communal fire. Household fires were extinguished and started again from the bonfire, for good luck. The idea was that evil spirits would be scared off by the fires. The day after the bonfire, the ashes were spread across the fields for further good luck for the farmers during the year
3. Trick or Treat – Asking for food or money at people’s houses
In the original Samhain festival, food was prepared for both the living and the dead. The food for the dead ancestors, who were obviously in no position to eat it, was then ritually shared with the less well off. The poor would also go from door to door to the houses of rich people and ask for food, for kindling to make fire or for money. They would then use what they collected for their celebrations.
4. Bobbing for apples – bite an apple in a basin of water
From Roman into Celtic tradition, apples were associated with the fertility goddess. When an apple is sliced in half, the seeds form a pentagram-like shape and it was thought the manifestation of such a symbol meant the apple could be used to determine marriages and fertility for the coming year. People tried to bite into a floating apple and the first person to do so would be the next one to marry or to be blessed with a child. Young girls who placed the apple they bobbed under their pillows were said to dream of their future lover.
5. Jack-O-Lantern – put a light inside a ‘pumpkin head’
A Celtic folk tale told of a farmer named Jack who would play tricks on the devil. The devil forced him to wander purgatory with only a burning lump of coal from hell to carry in his hand as light. Jack made a lantern from a turnip and used it to hold the coal and guide his lost soul. When Irish families emigrated to America in the 1800s, bringing their Halloween traditions with them, pumpkins were used as a substitute for turnips and this Halloween tradition also blended with an American harvest time tradition of carving pumpkins.