Halloween= Hallow E’en= Hallowed Evening= Holy Evening= Holy Saints Eve= All Saints Day= Samhain
Halloween has its origins in Ireland, where it is still practiced today in ways which date back to pre-Christian times. The day of Halloween is called Oiche Shamna in Ireland now- Night of the Spirits, but was formerly the feast day to celebrate Samhain; most commonly pronounced sow (as in cow) hin. It signifies the last day of the harvests, the first day of Winter and the beginning of the Celtic Year. In the lunar calendar, which predates our Roman inspired solar calendar, Samhain is celebrated on the eve after sunset, the beginning of a new day in the Celtic world view, of the full moon of this season. The only Western Christian holiday still set by the lunar calendar is Easter explaining its varied dates, therefore Halloween has been given a specific date of October 31. Following the Lunar Calender for 2017, Halloween and most certainly Samhain would have occurred this year on the eve of November 4th, meaning November 3rd after sunset.
To conceptualize that this is the beginning of the new year requires a shift in perspective, which I internalized by ceremonially casting seed at this time, imagining these seeds landing in their place, being covered by the falling leaves, swelling with the rains, breaking dormancy with the colds of winter, and sprouting at just the right time when the soil warmed. This resulted in a successful crop of parsnips under an apple tree, which has continued to this day. As I cast the seed I consciously thought of this time as the beginning of the new year, and throughout the winter months thought often of those seeds as they lay there sheltered, and likened them to my own sense of dormancy and coming growth at this time of year. Like a seed, I contain all of what has occurred in the last year, encapsulated, ready to bring forward in the coming one. This is a time of remembering, reflecting and processing as we ready ourselves for the coming year. It is a time of myth, song, ceremony and honoring.
“Well, we had all the grains in, all the potatoes, we used to houk (harvest) the potatoes all day and were finished by Halloween. There’s sort of a custom that everything was finished up out in the fields. All was supposed to be in before Halloween.”1 In Ireland the last of the potatoes and grains are harvested right up until this day, the fruits and nuts have ripened and are stored. The livestock have been brought in from the pastures and are provided with shelter for the winter, a large store of hay and grain set aside for their feed. It is now a time of rest and “man rests secured that sufficient food for both man and beast is vouchsafed for another winter.”1
This is November Eve and the Feast of Autumn, and celebrated with a bonfire a tradition which continues today in parts of Ireland. The last stand of ‘corn’ (wheat, barley or oat) was left unharvested to be made into a weaving which contains the spirit of the ‘corn’ and brought into the house for the winter, then returned to the field, plowed in with the first plantings. The technique used to make these ‘corn dollie’s (dolly possibly from ‘idol’ or the greek word for spirit, ‘eidolon’) is similar to those used to make willow baby rattles, as we learned from basket weaver, Joe Hogan during our recent visit in Ireland.
Halloween is sometimes referred to as Irish Christmas, celebrated with equal vigor, the foods being the same as those at Christmas. In the recent past it was one of only four feasts of the year that ‘butcher’s meat’ might be served. There are many games played which involve fruit and nuts, sweet cakes and puddings, and the children sometimes refer to this day as Snap Apple Night, Ducking Night, Nut Crack Night. It was also sometimes referred to as Bonfire night for the ones set on this eve, usually made three or four feet high from cuttings from the garden, orchard and hedge, serving practical as well as spiritual purposes. The word bonfire may derive from bone-fire when the bones from ritual slaughter were placed on these fires. Bonfires were lit in each village, and all other fires extinguished, when at dawn each hearth was solemnly relit with the coals from the community bonfire creating a common bond.
Halloween is a weeklong celebration, even today, in Northern Ireland, particularly in Derry; a time when political differences are set aside. “A day of family reunions, meals, and fun, Halloween brings people of all ages together with rhyming, storytelling, family fireworks, and community bonfires. Perhaps most important, it has become a day that transcends the social conflict found in this often-troubled nation.”2
In virtually all world cultures it is recognized that this is the time when the spirit world is the closest to ours, and the door is open between the two worlds, as the night begins its reign. Many of the acts around Halloween today reflect this awareness, in particular the use of Jack O’ Lanterns, costumes, and pranks. In the Christian era, Halloween, or more so Samhain, was usurped as the day to honor all Saints whether canonized or not, hence All Saints Day was born. All Souls Day, also known as Day of the Dead was later set to immediately follow All Saints Day.3 This mixing of traditions, now celebrated in one form or the other virtually worldwide, has now made the images of ghosts, death, and sorcery (representing anti-Christian evil) the dominant theme of Halloween, overshadowing the other, equally important, elements of harvest feasts, the new year, and a time of rest.
The first Halloween lanterns were carved from turnips or rutabagas, a tiny candle placed inside, and were either placed on fences or in windows, or carried with a string handle, to scare off evil spirits, and ‘sufficient to scare the wits out of people’.4 Crosses might be placed over the door, and gifts of food were left out on the table on Halloween to feed the ancestors who might come visiting. People avoided traveling alone on this night and, even when in groups, only with the protection of their jack o’ lantern.
Children in Ireland visited neighboring houses in the weeks leading up to Halloween, following the Equinox, wearing black sacks or white sheets, faces painted black and white, perhaps with a conical straw hat, offering rhymes in exchange for coins. This is called Rhyming, still practiced today. The better Rhymers create their own, though there were some often-used rhymes as well. The more creative the rhyme, the more coins, and perhaps none at all for those who didn’t create their own. It was acceptable to decline Rhymers after receiving too many in one night, or if considered too old. Handing out gifts of candy, fruit or nuts was rare, and considered poorly.
Pranks were especially conducted on Halloween eve. Pranks were often linked to the fear that the spirits were moving about. One, often recounted, involved tying a black thread to the door knocker, and from a far distance raising the knocker and, when the person opened the door and found no one in sight, it was feared that a spirit, or Death, had come knocking. Another involved covering the chimney with a wet sack, or even to toss a cabbage down it, filling the house with smoke. Clothing left on the clothesline might be removed and replaced with cabbage leaves. Mud thrown on windows, and other similar, and familiar, mean acts were also common. To be threatened or even chased down the streets, sometimes for a length of time, was a favorable outcome of pranks.
The feasts of Halloween emphasized the harvests and the foods served were associated with the supernatural aspects of the season. The turnip meat scooped out from making the lanterns, customarily by fathers and sons, was mashed and served. Dishes made from potatoes, such as colcannon, champ or boxty are common, and rings, thimbles and other symbolic items hidden within, which when found portended your future, especially related to marriage. Oat cakes were eaten and dreamed on. Apple, fruit and nut dishes were abundant. Apple pudding made with potatoes, flour and some sugar is a traditional dish, and might also include symbolic objects to cast the future. A goose might serve as the main course, and roast meat was traditional, however small. Cabbage and kale are served with lots of butter and mustards. Afternoon tea is better than usual, with a bit of currant loaf or pie. Fruits were made into pies, tarts, dumplings and puddings.
Apples were strung from the ceiling or placed in tubs of water in games we recognize today. Children made necklaces of rose hips, and hawthorn fruits, or from horse chestnuts. The dark brown nut of the horse chestnuts, also called conks, were tied to a long string, and children played a game called ‘Conkers’ where they took turns swinging theirs against their opponents, the losers those who’s cracked first. Fireworks are now part of Halloween celebrations, perhaps a modern take on the bonfire. It is a time of storytelling, song and rhyme.
Traditions we can carry into our Samhain and Halloween traditions include the feast foods, especially colcannon, cabbage dishes, apple and nut desserts of all kinds, and a roast of pork, lamb or beef. Strings of rose hips and hawthorn berries can be used as necklaces or garlands in our seasonal decorations. A weaving of stalks from the garden or field made into a ‘corn dolly’ can help preserve the spirit of the harvest for the coming year. Perhaps a rhyme can be offered when trick or treating. Make a bonfire from cuttings from the garden and orchard, and use the coals to start a first fire of the new year.
And, perhaps, cast seeds…
Sources and more info:
1) Journal notes of Edward McBride, County Monaghan, in 1933
2) ‘The Hallowed Eve’ Jack Santino, 2009
3) From signage at the National Museum of Ireland, Country Life- Turlough, County Mayo, Ireland
Note: Much of the information and most of the photos in this article were derived from my 2015 and 2017 visits to the Country Life Museum in Turlough (above). Various other sources including ‘The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween’ by Jean Markale, 2001, and ‘The Hallowed .