On Halloween night I came across an Irish website that detailed how strong and ancient the tradition of Halloween is in Ireland. Halloween is a worldwide event, but I learned that many of the customs we enjoy and associate with this spooky holiday originated in Ireland.
My ancient Irish ancestors knew November 1st as Samhain, the Celtic New Year, and the celebrations began at sunset the day before, Oct. 31st which was known as Oiche Shamhna, our Halloween..
The writer, Marion McGarry, pointed out the most notable Halloween traditions: Jack O’Lanterns, trick and treating, scaring the scariest ghouls/spirits with costumes and bonfires and noise. No Irish home (or American home) is considered properly decorated for Halloween without a carved and illuminated pumpkin, which originated with the folktale of Jack O’ Lantern.
The tale begins with Jack, a stingy man who tricked and trapped the Devil by using a cross. Jack refused to free him until the Devil agreed never to take his soul. After Jack died, the story goes, the Devil gave him a lit-lantern to guide him as he wandered through eternal darkness; thus, he became known as Jack of the Lantern or Jack O’Lantern. However, in olde Ireland they carved out a turnip, but later more practical Irish immigrants found easier-to-carve pumpkins.
Halloween was seen as a time when a window opened to allow those from the Otherworld into ours. In Ireland, Halloween masks and costumes were designed to trick the wandering evil fairies and ghouls into thinking the masked folks were one of their own and, of course, they would not abduct their own. And so witches, ghosts and goblins were among the favorite choices for Halloween costumes. As in BOO!
Thus, the tradition revolves around the return of the dead on Halloween, which was called “ghost night,” when the dead revisited the mortal world. In true Celtic tradition the friendlier souls of ones’ ancestors also were expected to return to the family home and sit around the fireplace, the honorable spot in the house. These tales are rooted in the celebration of Oiche Shamhna – ancestor-worship — which was a important part of ancient Celtic culture.
Another Irish Samhain tradition is fortune telling, especially on Halloween night. Reading tea leaves was a popular pastime in Ireland and those predictions were evermore credible on that night.
Our Halloween parties are outgrowths of the annual Halloween parlor games in olde Ireland. In their spooky, scary costumes children visited their neighbors begging and shouting for goodies to help their parlor games (trick or treating?) before racing home.
Among their party games were “Snap Apple,” which is an apple on a string and blindfolded players desperately trying to capture it with a bite – not unlike another Halloween game of bobbing for apples in a big bucket of water.
In Samhain tradition, Nov. 1, marks the end of the final harvest of the summer and the apples had to have been picked by the time the feasting began. Why? On Samhain (today) the Puca – the Irish evil fairies — would spit on any unharvested apples to render them inedible.
Fortunately, we can get our apples at the store, knowing they were picked before Nov. 1. Have a happy Samhain!