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How the Irish invented Hallowe'en
by Brendan Sharkie
The Celts celebrated Hallowe'en as Samhain, the Feast of the Dead, when the deceased revisited the mortal world. This Oiche na Sprideanna (Spirit Night) marked the end of summer.
During the 8th century, the Catholic Church designated the first day of November as All Saints Day - all Hallows. Thus All Hallows Eve became Hallowe'en. It was an occasion of family reunion after booleying. (Booley - a milking place). Booleying was a system of moving cattle and sheep to summer pastures on higher ground or distant moorland. Young folk and even whole families left the village after the crops were sown and migrated to the booley area. Small homes were built with turf or sods, or of wicker work, and roofed with branches or heather. A chair or two, the cast iron pot, a creel and a few household items would have been strapped to the donkey's back. The little churn was slung on one side of the animal, into which the youngest child was often thrust, its head being the only part visible.
At the reunion at All Hallows, when the sheep and cattle were brought back from the summer pastures, fires were lit to mark the end of the period of growth and to herald the new year. The Hallowe'en fire was used long ago to supply light and to rekindle the domestic fire. The crops would have been harvested and the turf saved by then.
Hallowe'en was the night when the woman of the house opened her cupboards and spread a little feast for the family. Even the poorest household prepared something special for that night. Hazelnuts, apples and other fruits of the Autumn had an important place in the combined pastimes of feasting and foretelling the future. Cabbages figure in many old games and one of these, or a turnip, were often tossed against a neighbours door on Hallowe'en night to give them a fright.
Many games were played upon the theme of identifying a future husband - matchmaking and marriage being among the functions of the great festivals. In one game, four plates were set upon a table. Water was poured into one, a ring placed in another, some clay in the third and some straw, salt or oats in the last. Someone would then be led to the table blindfolded and on to whichever plate they placed a hand, so their future would turn out. The water signified migration, the ring marriage, the clay death and the fourth prosperity. On rearranging of the plates others would be blindfolded and led up to take their turn. In another game, a perfect Ivy leaf was placed in a container of cold water. On the following morning if the Ivy leaf had no blemishes that person would have twelve months of good health. If not...?
Special food served would have been Colcannon - mashed boiled potatoes mixed with cooked green cabbage and chopped raw onion. Cooked bacon could also be added, the whole seasoned with salt and pepper. Barmbrack, a fruit loaf often containing a coin or a ring, would be served.
Jack O'Lantern was a blacksmith, a lost soul, to whom the Devil gave a hollowed out turnip in which was placed a burning coal ember. He was doomed to roam the Earth forever. So, today, we have the tradition of the turnip lantern. In the USA where the turnip was not so widespread, a pumpkin was used.
Celtic Druids dressed up to disguise themselves from the ghosts or
devils roaming the land on Hallowe'en night so as to avoid being carried away. Hence the tradition of dressing up at Hallowe'en. However great the fright, nobody would really be surprised to meet with the Puca, the Black Pig, or meet up with that headless ghost, the Dullahan... or to wake in the dark of night and find the returned dead of the family seated around the kitchen hearth...
Brendan lives in Belfast. He's a retired librarian hoping to meet a wealthy American woman who will rescue him from the awful weather. If you'd like to write to Brendan, he has given us permission to publish his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
See other articles on Samhain and Halloween below:
An Irish Hallowe'en - Part 1
An Irish Hallowe'en - Part 2
How the Irish Invented Halloween
History of 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.
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