As the days shorten and night closes in, all over the world we celebrate the festival of Halloween.
It may have become increasingly commercialized in recent years, with retail pushing consumption of food and party outfits for weeks beforehand, but the celebration has at its core a more spiritual meaning that can trace its roots to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.
‘Samhain’ in Gaelic means ‘November’ and the Irish for Halloween is ‘Oíche Shamhna’, or the ‘Eve of Samhain’. It was an event in the Celtic calendar the marked the end of the lighter half of the year and the beginning of the dark half.
To the Celtic mind, the year was divided into two halves, the dark and the bright and on this night it was believed that the veil between the spiritual realm and the real world was at its thinnest and spirits of the ancestors could pass through and walk among the living.
Rather than a time to cower at home in fear, people welcomed the dead into their homes, setting a place for the departed and leaving food out for them. As the ancestors travelled to pass Halloween night with their descendants, the portals remained open for other, more malignant spirits to walk through as well, so the food offerings were made to appease them, to not cause mischief or harm.
Dressing up and travelling door to door was a custom designed to confuse these spirits, but to also make them feel more at home. Oíche Shamhna was first and foremost a festival of the harvest not only in Ireland but across Celtic Europe. However, it was in Ireland that the tradition survived at its strongest.
Bonfires were lit, as they are today in Ireland and traditionally the hearth fires in people’s homes were extinguished and relit from the communal bonfire as a symbol of a new beginning, as well as a way to knit the community together. The term ‘bonfire’ comes from the words ‘bone’ and ‘fire’.
Cattle were extremely important in Celtic Ireland. A chieftain’s wealth and power were tied up in his herd. Cattle were used as currency and as barter to settle disputes. The Celtic Irish depended on cattle for dairy and meat. Halloween was the time of slaughter and it was then that they would choose which beasts were to be rendered for meat for the long winter months ahead and at Halloween, cattle bones were cast into the bonfires as offerings.
Fire played a central role in the observance, symbolising the destruction of the old and the start of something new. Cooking meat, beef or game, over flames would be the perfect way to honour the millennia-old traditions of Samhain.
Of course feasting played a major part in the celebrations and the harvest was a time of plenty, but the food that was consumed took on symbolic meaning. Particular foods were used as a way of divination or soothsaying.
Hazelnuts were considered magic and by placing them close to an open fire and seeing which way they jumped in the heat could foretell and happy or unhappy marriage. One of the customs to have survived right up to today in Ireland is the barmbrack, a kind of sweet bread with currants and sultanas into which certain objects were inserted. Depending on what you found in your slice would tell your fortune for the year ahead.
A pea meant you would not be married that year, a stick foretold a troubled marriage, a rag meant that you would live in poverty, a coin meant you would be rich and a ring meant you would be married within a year. Bambrack is still extremely popular at Halloween and even the commercially bought bracks contain a toy ring.
Kale was also considered to have powers of divination properties and leaves were hung above the door, then placed under the pillow to bring dreams of your future spouse. Apples were an important part of the celebrations, symbolising immortality and consumed in all forms, but they also feature in parlour game such as ‘bobbing for apples’, the aim of which was to pluck floating apples from basins of water with your teeth.
As pumpkins are not indigenous to Ireland, the practice of carving them is a relatively new addition. Instead, the ‘jack-o'-lantern’ was carved from a turnip. As the swede is a much tougher vegetable than the pumpkin, they were more difficult to carve, however, the effect is altogether rougher and scarier. Some speculate that the tradition of lighting the jack-o'-lantern is related to the Celtic custom of severing the heads of their slain enemies and hanging them outside their dwellings as trophies.
When the Irish fled to America in their droves, they carried with them the traditions of Oíche Samhna. There the traditions were Americanised and later commercialized before being re-exported back to Europe where today the festival gets stronger and stronger, even in those countries with no tradition of Halloween, such as Italy.