Did you know that Halloween is as Irish as St. Patrick’s Day? And it is much, much older. The ancient Celts had a different calendar, along with a whole different belief system. For them, this date marked the end of the year. It was called Samhain. They believed it was a very different – and dangerous – day because spirits could travel from their world to ours. And not all those spirits were nice.
Our ancestors carved scary faces into turnips to discourage the scary spirits from visiting their homes. They feared things far worse than having their house TP’ed. They had just gathered the harvest, and they worried about those spirits damaging their winter food supply. People did not stay home, despite their fear. Or maybe it was the fear that drove them to gather together and light huge bonfires. Perhaps they felt safer gathered together in the light of the bonfire. Tight knit community is one of our Irish gifts, a deeply rooted part of our culture.
The ancient Celts also believed that because the spirit world merged with theirs, it was a good time to divine the future. Life was so uncertain and precarious, they yearned for some idea of what was to come. The Druid priests would make predictions at Samhain, and that tradition has evolved and continued through the centuries.
Even as recently as 50 or 60 years ago, people made round fruit cakes called barm brack with tokens baked into them to symbolize what would happen in the new year. If you got a slice of barm brack with a ring in it, a wedding was in your future. If you got a coin, it meant you would be prosperous in the new year. Barm brack is still popular in Ireland, but today bakers don’t dare to put tokens in the cakes for fear of liability issues. Litigation has replaced restless, vindictive spirits as our big fear.
As Christianity spread, and Ireland shifted from its pagan past to embrace the message St. Patrick brought, Samhain evolved into Halloween and All Saints Day. People still lit bonfires, as they continue to do today for Halloween in Ireland.
The Irish who arrived in America in the 1840s fleeing the Great Hunger brought their traditions with them. Over time, Halloween evolved into the holiday we know today with children as likely to dress up as superheroes, princesses or beloved cartoon characters as witches or ghosts as they trick or treat for candy.
Halloween is part of our ancient Celtic heritage, and one of the Irish gifts that America has embraced and loved. It’s become so much a part of American life that many people don’t realize it is actually Irish. But that’s no reason to miss out on the Irish gifts of community, mischief and spirituality this season offers. Why not add some Celtic tradition to your Halloween this year? Bake a barm brack; light a fire. Take a moment to honor the ancestors who have left this world.