Samhain (pronounced SAH-win or SOW-in, Irish pronunciation for Samhain the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year. Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. The holiday known as Halloween originated in Ireland. Find out more about Irish Halloween Traditions and Samhain, the frightening celebration that has its roots in Celtic culture, and the rituals that are still practiced to this day in Ireland and elsewhere throughout the world.
Believe it or not, Ireland is the country that gave birth to Halloween, and many of the modern-day practices associated with the holiday are derived from the more than two thousand years of history, culture, and tradition that the Irish has cultivated. Every year on October 31st, people celebrate All Hallows Eve, which has its roots in the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced "Sow-when" like the word "sound" without the d and you should have it!). Samhain was a celebration honoring the dead.
What is Samhain?
Samhain is an Old Gaelic phrase that can be roughly translated as "the end of summer." Samhain is celebrated at the conclusion of summer. Samhain was a holiday that our ancestors celebrated to mark the conclusion of the harvest season, the beginning of winter, and the beginning of a new year. They held the belief that on Samhain, the veil that separates the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest, making it simpler for ghosts to move freely between the two realms. Unsettling stuff!
What kinds of Halloween traditions do people in Ireland observe?
The following is a collection of some ancient and some more recent Irish Halloween traditions from Ireland that have been passed down from generation to generation:
- Colcannon for Dinner: Boiled Potato, Curly Kale (a cabbage), and raw Onions are provided as the traditional Irish Halloween dinner. Clean coins are wrapped in baking paper and placed in the potato for children to find and keep.
- The Barmbrack Cake: The traditional Halloween cake in Ireland is the barmbrack which is a fruit bread. Each member of the family gets a slice. Great interest is taken in the outcome as there is a piece of rag, a coin, and a ring on each cake. If you get the rag then your financial future is doubtful. If you get the coin then you can look forward to a prosperous year. Getting the ring is a sure sign of impending romance or continued happiness.
- The Ivy Leaf: Each member of the family places a perfect ivy leaf into a cup of water and it is then left undisturbed overnight. If, in the morning, a leaf is still perfect and has not developed any spots then the person who placed the leaf in the cup can be sure of 12 months' health until the following Halloween. If not.....
- The Pumpkin: Carving Pumpkins dates back to the eighteenth century and to an Irish blacksmith named Jack who colluded with the Devil and was denied entry to Heaven. He was condemned to wander the earth but asked the Devil for some light. He was given a burning coal ember which he placed inside a turnip that he had gouged out. Thus, the tradition of Jack O' Lanterns was born - the bearer being the wandering blacksmith - a damned soul. Villagers in Ireland hoped that the lantern in their window would keep the wanderer away. When the Irish emigrated in their millions to America there was not a great supply of turnips so pumpkins were used instead.
- Halloween Costumes: On Halloween night children would dress up in scary costumes and go house to house. 'Help the Halloween Party' and 'Trick or Treat' were the cries to be heard at each door. This tradition of wearing costumes also dates back to Celtic times. On the special night when the living and the dead were at their closest, the Celtic Druids would dress up in elaborate costumes to disguise themselves as spirits and devils in case they encountered other devils and spirits during the night. By disguising they hoped that they would be able to avoid being carried away at the end of the night. This explains why witches, goblins, and ghosts remain the most popular choices for the costumes.
- Snap-Apple: After the visits to the neighbors the Halloween games begin, the most popular of which is Snap Apple. An apple is suspended from a string and children are blindfolded. The first child to get a decent bite of the apple gets to keep their prize. The same game can be played by placing apples in a basin of water and trying to get a grip on the apple without too much mess!
- The Bonfire: The Halloween bonfire is a tradition to encourage dreams of who your future husband or wife is going to be. The idea was to drop a cutting of your hair into the burning embers and then dream of your future loved one. Halloween was one of the Celt 'fire' celebrations.
- Blind Date: Blindfolded local girls would go out into the fields and pull up the first cabbage they could find. If their cabbage had a substantial amount of earth attached to the roots then their future loved one would have money. Eating the cabbage would reveal the nature of their future husband - bitter or sweet!
Another way of finding your future spouse is to peel an apple in one go. If done successfully the single apple peel could be dropped on the floor to reveal the initials of the future-intended.
- Anti-Fairy Measures: Fairies and goblins try to collect as many souls as they can at Halloween but if they met a person who threw the dust from under their feet at the Fairy then they would be obliged to release any souls that they held captive.
- Holy Water: Holy water was sometimes anointed on farm animals to keep them safe during the night. If the animals were showing signs of ill health on All Hallows Eve then they would be spat on to try to ward off any evil spirits.