Halloween Finds Its Roots in Irish Folklore

A sea of Celtic crosses in a cemetery at Glendalough Abbey in County. Photo by www.greendragonartist.com – all rights reserved by the artist.

Submitted by Kat Behling
Each November 1st, a decrepit old woman with an iron hammer appears across the Irish countryside, pummeling the ground with such mighty force that her hammer turns the soil to solid rock. She then takes to the sky casting stones every which way from her massive apron creating majestic, snow-capped mountaintops in her path.

Known in Irish folklore as Cailleach, the Goddess of Samhain, she is considered the female version of who we know as Old Man Winter. Often at odds with her nemesis Brigid, the Goddess of spring, Cailleach possesses the magical power of renewing her youth and vitality with the change of the seasons.

Winter is known in ancient Ireland as Samhain (pronounced “Sow-in”) and is one of four seasons marking the Celtic calendar. The others are Imbolc (spring), Beltane (summer) and Lughnasadh (autumn). Each season consists of three months, each concluding with a communal celebration.

A Time for Reflection and Renewal

The festival of Samhain is held the eve of October 31st and celebrates both the end of the harvest and the welcoming of the New Year. As the days become shorter, the nights become colder and the lightness fades, the growing cycle has come to a close. The trees, having shed the last of their leaves and nuts, appear stark and lifeless. Not coincidentally, this important festival marks the beginning of the “dark half” of the Celtic calendar.

The ancient Celts believed Samhain opened the “gateway” to the rest cycle, as it is during these long dark days of winter that the cycle of renewal is set into motion – seeds quietly germinate anticipating the first gentle rays of spring’s light. The seasons were believed to possess a spiritual energy connecting its people to the layers in time. As a result, Samhain has long been – and continues to be – a sacred time for introspection, remembrance of loved ones and personal reflection.

Of Spirits and Saints

According to ancient beliefs, the gateways to the physical and spiritual worlds are overthrown on the Eve of Samhain, making it possible for humans, ancestors, gods and faeries to visit each other’s realms. Beloved elders were honored and ancestors remembered. Souls were thought to return in the guise of a faerie or spirit, seeking out their descendants, offering loving guidance and words of wisdom. Over the centuries, the celebration of Samhain eventually became known as “All-Hallow-even”, “All Hallow’s Eve” and finally, “Hallowe’en”.

In fact, what began as a pagan festival evolved over the centuries into a Christian-interpreted holiday when Pope Boniface instituted “All Saints Day” (also known as “All Souls Day”), a Catholic day of observance loosely based on pagan traditions and honoring those saints who did not have a specific day of remembrance. Originally observed May 13th, the date was later changed to its present day of November 1st by Pope Gregory III.

Hallowe’en Traditions Alive Today

With the Christian observance of All Saints Day, Hallowe’en eventually evolved into a celebration for children. Dressed in scary masks and costumes resembling wandering spirits, children roamed door-to-door, begging for sweet treats along the way – or beware the trick played on the owner of the house. The custom was brought to America with the Irish immigrants of the 1840’s. Today, better known as “Beggar’s Night” or “Trick or Treat”, witches, goblins and ghosts remain the most popular choices for Hallowe’en costumes.

Hallowe’en is also known in Ireland as “Pooky Night”, referring to a “púca” or mischievous faerie. Although unseen to the mortal eye, faeries were said to live among humans, so it was considered to be in one’s best interest to stay in good relations with these kindred spirits throughout the year. For instance, it is considered extremely bad manners to remove an ash, hawthorne or oak tree to make way for a new home, as faeries tend to seek out these favorite trees for their own habitats.

Instead, the Irish have a custom of placing a small gift or token under a hawthorne tree on Hallowe’en to attract good-natured faeries. In return for the hospitality, faeries are known to bring good fortune and protection the remainder of the year.

The tradition of the bonfire has its roots in Ireland where the highlight of village festivities was the gathering of neighbors and loved ones and the anticipation of the lighting of the great fire, usually atop a hill. Once the fire reached towering heights, the head of each family then solemnly took from this common flame to light their hearth at home, a powerful symbol of solidarity. Today, it is customary to leave a candle burning in the window on Hallowe’en.

Another custom included leaving the door open and food on the table on Hallowe’en in the event a departed loved one might return that night. The candle in the window also served as a sign of welcome.

Carving faces into turnips and setting them on doorsteps was said to ward off evil spirits. Irish immigrants who migrated to America carried on the tradition by carving pumpkins, which were more plentiful here than turnips. The tradition actually dates to the 18th century when an Irish blacksmith named Jack was said to have colluded with the devil. As a result, not only was he denied entry into Heaven, but was condemned to eternally wander the earth in complete darkness and given a single burning ember as light which he placed inside a hallowed-out turnip. Thus, the tradition of the “Jack O’Lantern” was born.

Placing a perfect ivy leaf into a cup of water before going to bed was believed to tell the fate of family members. If in the morning, the leaf was still perfect and had not turned spotty, then the person who placed it in the cup would have twelve months of good health.

“Bobbing for Apples,” once a popular Hallowe’en game, was known in Ireland as “Snap the Apple.” Instead of placing apples in a tub of water, an apple was suspended from a string and children were blindfolded.

A traditional Irish Hallowe’en dinner might include Colcannon – boiled or mashed potato, curly kale (a type of cabbage) and raw onions. Sometimes clean coins were placed inside the potatoes for children to find.

Author: Guest

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    • It’s a beauty! Thanks for letting us use it… it’s perfect for Halloween.

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  1. So fun! Thanks for sharing. Happy Samhain!

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  2. enjoy reading some of the trivia about the origins of the Holidays celebrated in the last three months of each year…

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  1. The Origins of the Jack-O-Lantern: Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co Mayo | Ireland Travel Kit - [...] Irish Fireside: Halloween Finds Its Roots in Irish Folklore [...]

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