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An Irish Halloween - Part 1
by Bridget Haggerty
Ever since the time of the Druids, many customs and traditions have evolved in celebration of Samhain, which is New Years Day in the Celtic Calendar. When Christianity came to Ireland, the church took a dim view of Druidic festivals and created the vigil of All Souls Evening, (or All Hallows Eve) on October 31st, the Feast of All Saints on November 1st, and All Souls Day on November 2nd.
All three days were regarded as one of the most important times of the year and were celebrated throughout Ireland with feasting, merrymaking and divination games on Halloween, the completion of farming activities by Samhain, and rituals out of respect and remembrance for departed kinfolk on All Souls Day.
In the old days, the ancients believed that on this night, hobgoblins, evil spirits and fairies traveled about the country in great numbers. For protection against fairy mischief, holy water was sprinkled on animals, food offerings were left outside the house, oatmeal and salt were put on the heads of children, iron or a dead ember from the fire was put in an infants cradle, and little ones were taught not to eat wild fruits on this night, or afterwards, because it was believed that the Puca, a particularly nasty spirit, went about spitting or urinating on them. It was also the custom to make a special cross called a Parshell. Two small sticks were laid crosswise and shafts of wheat were woven around the junction until the cross was secured. It was then hung over the door on the inside of the house to help protect the family from illness, bad luck and witchcraft until the next Halloween when a new cross would be made. The old cross would then be moved to another part of the house.
'Everyone has debts at Halloween' is an old Irish proverb and this was a time when people attempted to settle up. Workers were paid, as was the rent, and farm folk secured crops and livestock for the hard winter to come. While the adults were completing these chores, children visited relatives and friends and were given gifts of apples and nuts. They also played lots of games. One divination game, which was very popular, called for all the unmarried young people to fasten an apple apiece on a string and twirl it around before a hot fire. The one whose apple fell off first would be the first to marry; he or she whose apple remained until the the end would die unwed. If an apple was peeled in one long strip, and the peeling thrown backwards over the left shoulder, the shape it made as it lay on the ground showed the initial of the future spouse. Another method of divination was for the inquirer to stick pips on her cheek, naming each for a possible husband. The one that stayed there longest denoted the mate to be. Or a pip similarly named could be placed on the bars of the fire, with the words:
If you love me, bounce and fly,
If you hate me, lie and die.
Other activities included bobbing for apples which is still popular today, and snap apple which is trying to take a bite of an apple hanging on a string.
For many centuries, Halloween was a day of abstinence, when no meat was eaten. But that doesnt mean Irish households didnt enjoy the best of other foods. Even in the poorest of homes, the wife would make every effort to prepare a special meal for the family, and more prosperous neighbors would be certain to help her achieve it with gifts of milk, butter, vegetables and other ingredients.
A favorite traditional dish of yesteryear which is still popular, is Colcannon and its very easy to make. Boiled potatoes are mashed and then mixed with cooked green cabbage and chopped scallions. The mixture is then seasoned with salt and pepper to taste and a large hollow is made in the center in which a generous amount of butter is placed to melt. Whether served in individual bowls or from a common dish, the custom is to dip a spoonful of the potato mixture into the butter before eating it.
Other traditional dishes are stampy, which is a sweet cake made by blending grated, raw potatoes with flour and flavoring with sugar, caraway seeds and cream; boxty, which is the savory version of stampy, apple cakes and barmbrack, which is a rich fruit bread. Customarily, various objects are wrapped and hidden in the barmbrack: a wedding ring which means marriage within the year, a coin signifying riches, a thimble predicting spinsterhood, a pea denoting poverty and perhaps even a little boat which meant a journey.
While many of the old traditions have died out, two that survive, especially in Dublin, include the lighting of bonfires and the custom of children dressed up in costume going from house to house shouting in unison: Help the Halloween Party! Any apples or nuts? Just a couple of generations ago, it would have been a group of young and grown boys who would blow horns and travel great distances in order to gather enough gifts for a night of feasting, music, dancing and fun.
Click here for An Irish Halloween Part 2
See our other articles on Samhain and Halloween below:
An Irish Hallowe'en - Part 1
An Irish Hallowe'en - Part 2
How the Irish Invented Halloween
A Triple Treat For Hallowe'en
The Churchyard Bride
Creepy Irish Castles and Houses
Creepy Irish Creatures
Something Wicked this way comes - Irish Ghosts by Region
Protect your property and yourself - Make a Parshell Cross for Hallowe'en
Samhain - The Irish New Year
The Day after Samhain - All Souls Day
Thu, Dec 7, 2017
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
Click for More Culture Corner.
What is it about Ireland’s past that so haunts the imagination? More than one answer can be found in Michael Scotts’s powerful new collection of 29 tales. In a newly Christianized Ireland, monks do battle with a devilish monster that has killed a river. In fact, all the water in these stories - from rivers to lakes, conceal dangers that men and women would best avoid. Adapted from an intro by the publisher.
Click here for Irish Ghosts.