Samhain where Halloween comes from

  • Sep 20, 2021
  • - 5 Minutes Read
  • - 890 Words

I came to Ireland from Southern Europe, from a country where, in my childhood, there was no Halloween, no ‘Trick or Treat’, no Pumpkins and no Tradition or Folklore related to it.

Only a few years before I left, the celebration of Halloween began to peep out as a mere commercial occasion.

Witches, ghosts, vampires, spiders, cobwebs and pumpkins appeared in the shop windows along with tons of sweets, and orange and black decorations decked the shopping centres.

Here, I discovered Halloween is more than that. It is celebrated across all of Ireland. Families gather, parties are given, social events and festivals are held in various venues, and white-faced people disguised as zombies or vampires walk on the streets of Dublin or Galway around the 31st of October.

Doing my research, I found out Halloween is deeply rooted in the Irish folklore tradition and linked to the Irish pre-Christian religious and social culture.

Yes, in Ireland too, Halloween is a commercial occasion, but, let me say, somehow the real essence still survives, in a different form, though.

Samhain, in Irish, is the name for November, and it comes from sam-fuin, which means the end of the summer. For millennia Samhain played an essential role in Irish life.

It marked the end of the summer and the return of the darkness. The force of nature vanished into a state of death. Everything got to an end.

Harvests were over, and the livestock was ritually slaughtered as sacrifices to ensure the return of life and oatcakes and milk were offered to the gods.

The human world rested, waiting for Spring, the new regenerating force.

Winter, cold and hunger were coming, and Earth held its breath.

A mysterious stillness and vibe enshrouded everything so that the veil between the living world and the otherworld became very thin, and the two worlds could touch and mingle together.

It was also the best auspicious time for the Druids to forecast the future, and indeed it was a special time when the fires were extinguished across all Ireland, and the sacred fire was lit by them and brought to the Hill of Tara.

There, the king would light a new fire as an offer of warmth and protection through the dark months, and beginning from the Hill of Tara, fires were lit again all over the country.

Down through the centuries, the tradition of Samhain changed and evolved in something a wee different, but still has some connections with the pure ritual of the Celtic ancient culture. All happens on this night, Oiche Shamhna in Irish, meaning the Eve of November or November night.

On this night, especially in Co. Dublin, the tradition of lighting bonfires still survives echoing the Hill of Tara sacred fire.

Candles are lit in the windows to remember the dead or guide them to the family house and, in the past, a place at the dinner was set for the departed.

Nowadays, or at least several years ago, traces of forecasting the future could be found in the divination games played at gatherings and parties.

Girls and boys used to put a piece of clay, some water, a ring and a Rosary Bead into four saucers, respectively. In turn, they, blindfolded, led to the vessels and put their hand into them. The water meant to go across the water, the clay to be the first to die, the ring to get married the first, the Bead to become a nun or a priest.

Also, they used to peel an apple without breaking the skin and throw the skin over their shoulder. The skin would make the initial of the Christian name of the future spouse. Nutshells were burnt for divinations to be foretold from the ashes too.

Carrying on the tradition of offering and divination altogether, the barmbrack is still baked (or shop-bought) and eaten to celebrate Halloween.

It is the most popular food, various objects are hidden and baked in the mixture of the loaf: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin, a ring or a thimble; all of them have a meaning, for example, the ring a wedding, the stick an unhappy marriage, the coin good fortune or be rich and the piece of cloth bad luck. Whoever gets the slice with one of these objects will know something about the future.

Many special dishes are cooked along the barmbrack: County Armagh celebrates with potato apple dumpling and potato apple cake. In Tyrone, Cavan, Fermanagh and Londonderry, various forms of boxty and colcannon are popular. All of them hide a wedding ring wrapped in greaseproof paper!

Up to the recent past, people used to leave as offering some food for the dead and the fairies outside the door.

In Co.Donegal, oatcakes and milk was a popular offering, while, in Co. Galway, the first plate of colcannon was offered to the fairies with no salt put on their portion!

The tradition of offering food mutated somewhat with people eating and giving out fancy food, chocolate, sugar and confectionery.

Nowadays, children, disguised as otherworld spirits, witches, ghosts, vampires and zombies, participate in the Halloween celebration by going around begging for treats or otherwise tricks are played.

The trick-or-treaters carry on the fear of the evil spirits roaming the world that night and the offering to appease them.

About Author

… and if you can’t go to heaven, may you at least die in Ireland.

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