Halloween is big in Ireland, we claim to have invented this particular celebration so the least we could do it make a fuss of it. I’m not denying America helped a lot. I mean, we used to carve turnips and those things are really hard to cut, much less carve. Pumpkins are a massive improvement, thank you.
We don’t really call it Halloween either. Well, we do in English. But we call it Samhain in Irish or Oíche Shamhna (the night of Halloween). Halloween, as you probably know, is named for the Eve of All Hallows. All Hallows (also called All Saints) is a Christian feast day celebrated on November 1st and marks the start of November, a month dedicated to praying for those who’ve died during the previous year or years. The Mexican Day of the Dead is somewhat similar in tradition.
Samhain isn’t the same thing and its roots go much further back, pre-dating Christianity in Ireland. It is one of the four big festivals of the pagan Gaelic year (the others are Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lugnasa). It marks the transition from harvest time into the darker time of the year and this still fits with Irish seasons today. I’ve just finished harvesting most of my vegetables and hedgerow foragings, the clocks went back this weekend, and we’ve settled into to needing evening lamps and fires in the hearth until the first buds of spring.
Even the colours of the festival have significance – orange for the harvest and black for the coming darkness.
Neolithic passage tombs (c. 3,000 B.C.), including the mound of the hostages at Tara, the seat of the old Irish high Kings and not too far from my home, are sometimes aligned with sunrise on Samhain. Some of our oldest stories tell of key events happening on this date. The belief was the barriers between the underworld and the living world were weak at this time. Hence the turnip lanterns – scare away the spirits – and the costumes – pass yourself off as a spirit and they won’t take you. I’m not sure what the Gaelic spirits would make of the minion costumes this year.
An accurate origin for the word Samhain isn’t available but it is likely to be sam (old Irish for summer and similar to Old Norse sumar) and fuin (end). So although we are concerned with ghosts, spirits and death, the original word may have had more to do with the end of the growing season and the start of the long winter dark.
But what of samhainophobia? It’s a morbid fear of Halloween. All tricks and no treats for unfortunate sufferers this week. Of course, Irish children shouldn’t be speaking of tricks or treats anyhow. That’s thanks to American movies and TV (imported with those pumpkins) in the last twenty years. We always said “Help the Halloween Party” and sometimes had to perform a song or dance to earn our sweets or coins in reward.
Until next week Happy Halloween and Oíche Shamhna Maith,