Halloween as we celebrate it today – with children dressed as superheroes, princesses and adorable animals going door to door collecting candy – is an American invention. But it wasn’t invented out of thin air. Halloween’s roots reach back to ancient Ireland and our Celtic ancestor’s beliefs. We celebrate differently today, but many elements of the festivities have an origin in pre-Christian Ireland. So Halloween is one of those beloved American holidays that could be considered Irish gifts.
The Celtic year begins on November 1st, and the night before was known as Samhain (pronounced sow-ain). Our ancestors believed that a sort of veil separated their everyday world from the world of the spirits, where the souls of the departed dwelled with various ghouls and monsters. They believed that over the course of the year, this veil wore thinner and thinner until at the very end of the year it was porous. So on Samhain, those ghosts and goblins were able to move from the spirit world to the human world and cause all sorts of mischief and mayhem. And that was pretty terrifying to them.
From Ancient Samhain to Modern Halloween
The most iconic things about Halloween began as Samhain practices. People got creative trying to protect themselves from those spooky spirits, and their tactics evolved and got more fun as belief in the threat of malicious spirits from beyond faded.
Jack-o-lanterns were not always carved from pumpkins. In fact, they started as turnips. People wanted to out-spook the spirits, so they carved scary faces onto turnips. They believed that if the spirits approached their homes and saw these terrifying turnip heads glaring at them, they would retreat and go for an easier mark. When the Irish in North America revived this practice, pumpkins were an obvious choice. They are certainly easier to hollow out than turnips!
While most of our ancient ancestors stayed inside laying low for Samhain, some braved it. Things come up, and the Celts sometimes had to venture out on Samhain. To protect themselves, they donned scary costumes figuring the ghouls would leave them alone if they didn’t look like ordinary, vulnerable mortals.
But it was scary even if you were hiding at home. In a last-ditch effort to placate any wandering spirits, people would leave food outside their houses. Nothing is worse than a hangry visitor from the spirit world! They hoped that spirits followed the ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ rule. And warm hospitality is one of our oldest Irish gifts.
An Irish Halloween
Today, Halloween in Ireland has some overlap with American Halloween practices and some traditions particular to this part of the world. Children dress up as their favourite television and movie characters as well as scary monsters and go trick or treating around their neighbourhoods. They have costume contests and parties at schools. Families carve pumpkins – not turnips – and decorate their homes with the same haunted house style seen in North America.
But they also build massive bonfires in both urban and rural areas where families gather, with teens and young adults staying later and rivaling the dreaded spirits of old when it comes to mischief and mayhem. Fireworks, despite being illegal, start early in October – depending on the weather and how successful the gardai have been in stopping the supply. And if you go shopping for edible Irish gifts, you will probably see the barm brack. As recently as a generation ago this was a Halloween staple. Tokens such as rings, coins and thimbles were baked into these fruit loaves, and the token you found in your slice predicted what the new year held for you.