These days, Halloween is a celebration for kids who dress up go sweets hunting at the neighbours’ doors. However, the real deal, practiced up until even 100 years ago, was so much more interesting and emotionally complex. It’s a shame we have let this part of Halloween go.
Nicole Buckler reminds us about the good stuff!
Let’s put it out there: although celebrated all over the world, Halloween started as a Celtic, even Irish ritual. It all started in its modern form from the Celtic festival of Samhain. The name is derived from Old Irish and sort of means ‘summer’s end’. It is held to mark the ‘final harvest’. The celebration of Samhain took place to make the transition from the lighter half of the year to the darker half. It is also regarded as the Celtic New Year.
Here’s the interesting bit. The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest on Samhain. Because winter was approaching and because some animals and plants were dying, it thus allowed the dead to reach back through the veil that separated them from the living. This also meant that you could invite your ancestors and dead loved ones into your life on this night.
However, it also meant that the gateway became rubbery for any bad spirits who wanted to make trouble in your life. Thus people started wearing creepy outfits to scare away the bad sprits. Indeed, it is tradition to set a place at the table on Samhain night for anyone passed over who you may want to honour. Some people still to this day set a place for relatives who have passed on, and some even set a place for pets. It is not unheard of to refill the dog’s bowl on Samhain night, long after a pet had passed. Honouring the dead is a great thing to do on Halloween night, and it’s a real loss that we Irish people don’t do this as much. It is a really meaningful way to talk to children about loved ones who have passed over a feast.
Here are some other nifty traditions of Halloween that have faded into obscurity:
-Samhain was a time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the bonfire. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames. Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual.
-The souling practice of commemorating the souls in purgatory with candle lanterns carved from turnips became adapted into the making of jack-o’-lanterns. In traditional Celtic Halloween festivals, large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces and placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. The carving of pumpkins became popular in North America where pumpkins are both readily available and much larger – making them easier to carve than turnips. The carving of pumpkins preceded the Great Famine period of Irish immigration and was originally associated with harvest time in general, not becoming specifically associated with Halloween until the mid 1800s.
-Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. Divining one’s future spouse was popular and there were many ways to do it. For exmaple, you could carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one’s shoulder. The peel is believed to land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse’s name. Also, unmarried women could sit in a darkened room and gaze into a mirror on Halloween night. Apparently, the face of their future husband would appear in the mirror. However, if they were destined to die before marriage, a skull would appear.
The custom was widespread enough to be commemorated on greeting cards from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nuts were roasted on the hearth and their movements interpreted. If the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in a glass of water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from how many birds appeared.
-In medieval Ireland, Samhain became the principal festival, celebrated with a great assembly at the royal court in Tara, lasting for three days. A bonfire was set alight on the Hill of Tara, which served as a beacon, signaling to people gathered atop hills all across Ireland to light their ritual bonfires. The custom has survived to some extent, and recent years have seen a resurgence in participation in the festival.
-Traditionally, Samhain was time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter. This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock. It is a time of year that meat will keep since the freeze has come. And, summer grass is gone and free foraging is no longer possible.
So next time Halloween comes around, let’s embrace some of these traditions that have fallen by the wayside. Choose turnips over pumpkins. And let’s make that place at the table for our late loved ones. That way children can learn about their ancestors as well as which neighbour has the best stash of sweets.