This article was sent to me a couple of years ago by my good friend, Fred, who resides in County Galway, Ireland. Unfortunately, I do not know the article’s author. But it is an interesting and informative article that I’d like to share.
First though, a bit about why Fred sent me this article. Fred is a musician who plays guitar, bouzouki, and mandola. Every March, Fred (and usually another musician friend or two) fly in from Ireland and visit their many friends here in Massachusetts, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day week here with us. On St. Patrick’s Day they play, along with some of their musical friends from this area, at Stone’s Public House, also known as Captain John Stone’s Inn, in Ashland, MA. Together they are known as the musical group Kinvara.
One evening at the Inn during their visit, I was talking with Fred and one of his friends regarding the fact that St. Patrick’s Day is more an “American Irish” holiday that is widely celebrated here. I asked the guys a question – “I know that corned beef and cabbage is an American Irish traditional meal for St. Pat’s Day – what would you eat for dinner on this day in Ireland?” The friend of Fred’s that had earlier professed his love of cooking answered, “Same as I would any other day, it’s not such a big deal there…but do you know what day we DO make a special meal for?”
I raised an eyebrow in question, and he responded “Samhain” – and started to explain to me what Samhain is. I informed him that I am Pagan and celebrate Samhain myself – so we went into further discussion about how Samhain is celebrated in Ireland. I understand that the Irish embrace their heritage, but this totally intrigued me. I was out in the midst of a bunch of Irish Catholics – who celebrate Samhain? I guess you can’t take the Pagan out of Ireland after all, eh? Upon his return home, I had emailed Fred about this conversation we had had – and in his response, he included this article. (I apologize for not crediting the author, but again, I do not know who wrote this.)
The Pagan Irish
After St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, it became the goal of monks and missionaries to convert the Pagan Irish. Because the natives were so resistant to Christianity, the Church sought to assist conversion by substituting Christian “versions” of sacred days and deities for ancient Celtic ones – hence, the powerful hearth Goddess Brigid became St. Briget, Beltane became Easter, and Samhain became All Hallow’s Eve (Oct. 31st) and All Saint’s Day (Nov 1st). Rather than being a day to honour all dead, as Samhain was, All Saint’s Day celebrated only saints who had no specific feast day of their own. The night before became known as All Hallow’s Eve, which provided the origin for the word ‘Halloween’. Since this holiday honouring the dead coincided so well with the long-established Samhain, it eased the transformation of the Irish from Pagan to Christian. One can find in the ‘Christian’ Halloween remnants of Celtic Samhain, including bonfires, imagery of gourds and other harvest icons, and conceptions of the dead visiting the world of the living.
When millions of the Irish fled their homelands to escape persecution or hunger, many immigrated to the New World, bringing the customs of Halloween with them. In America, this secular holiday has become associated with ghoulish, macabre imagery as well as certain customs, among them trick-or-treating, dressing up in costume, the lighting of jack ‘o lanterns, and apple bobbing. In Ireland, though these customs are practiced far less commonly, the modern inhabitants of the country still celebrate this special night with large bonfires and ‘ghoulish’ behaviour.
The origin of trick-or-treating comes from a European tradition called ‘souling’. Early Christians would roam from village to village begging for ‘soul cakes’, squares of currant-studded bread, promising to pray for the giver’s protection from malevolent spirits that might be upon the Earth at this time. Soul cakes were often left out, accompanied by wine, to placate or welcome the visiting souls of the dead as well. Over the years, this has evolved into the custom of children roaming from house to house, asking for sweets from well-wishers, while subtly threatening a ‘trick’ – the modern equivalent of a prank from a mischievous spirit – for those who fail to offer appropriately.
Another common symbol of Halloween is the jack ‘o lantern, or carved pumpkin lit from within by a flame. There are two origins to this custom: placing a lit candle within a turnip (which were far more common in Europe than pumpkins!) kept the flame from being extinguished and was thought to guide the spirits of the departed back to the hearth of their families.
In another aspect of the custom’s history, there is the legend of an overly clever lad called Jack who played a trick on the Devil. For his trouble, he was admitted to neither Heaven nor Hell, but condemned to wander the Earth with no guide in the darkness but a burning coal or ember. He placed this ember in a hollow turnip to protect the flame, thus creating the very first jack ‘o lantern. Perhaps you might want to tell this story as you carve your own pumpkin!
The custom of dressing up in costume can be traced back to the belief that the veil between worlds was easily crossed at this time and that the dead could walk among humans. In order to fool any ill-wishing spirits and fend off enchantment, it was believed that by dressing up as a goblin or ghoul one could disguise oneself and avoid being targeted or taken away by spirits. In time it became common to dress up as a variety of entities associated with death and spirits – witches, ghosts, vampires, and other supernatural marauders – giving rise to the little army of ghouls marching up your walkway.
Parallels are commonly found in many other cultures, including the vibrant, joyous ‘Dia de los Muertos’ or ‘Day of the Dead’ in Mexico and ‘Festival of the Dead’ in Italy, as well as Guy Fawkes’ Day and Armistice Day in the United Kingdom. As all countries in the Northern Hemisphere enter winter, cultural concerns logically turn toward matters of harvest, death, regeneration, and survival. All of our modern Halloween customs can be traced to these matters so important to the Celts – so as you carve your pumpkin, collect tinder for your fire, or don that wicked costume, remember that you’re celebrating a uniquely ‘Irish’ holiday!