St. Patrick’s Day might be the holiday the world recognizes as Irish, but another, much older Irish holiday is about to be celebrated around the globe. Halloween has Irish roots. Many of the modern traditions that have spread from the USA around the world actually evolved from ancient Irish practices. You could say trick or treating and jack-o-lanterns are some of the very oldest Irish gifts still being enjoyed every year.
The ancient Irish celebrated four main holidays over the year. Imbolc is the spring festival on the 1st of February. Bealtaine is the summer festival in May. Lughnasa, in August, is the autumn festival. Then, at the very end of the Celtic year is Samhain. October 31st is the ancient New Year’s Eve, with the new year starting on 1st November. The ancient Celtic people believed that a veil kept the spirits of the other world – the ghosts of the deceased and various supernatural creatures – out of their world, but over the course of the year, that veil wore out. They believed that by the last night of the year, those creepy beings could slip through into their world, causing mayhem.
Ghosts could visit to deal with any unfinished business, such as revenge on anyone they felt wronged them. Shape-shifting puka came through the veil too, determined to play terrifying tricks. What might at first look like a normal animal such as a rabbit, horse or goat could be a puka trying to lure you into danger.
The Irish Roots of Today’s Halloween Staples
Today’s most popular Halloween traditions are the direct descendants of ancient practices.
- Trick or Treating comes from dealing with the mischievous puka. They loved to play tricks, including malicious ones, but the best defence was to bribe them with food.
- Jack o Lanterns were originally carved turnips, not pumpkins. Their size and shape gave them a close enough resemblance to a human skull. The ancient Celts carved gruesome, scary faces into them in an effort to frighten off any ghosts or evil spirits.
- Costumes were another defensive tactic. Sometimes, one simply had to venture outside on Samhain eve. In that case, the safest thing was to appear to be another supernatural creature, hopefully one that frightened any real monsters lurking around.
Time and distance led to these ancient ways evolving when waves of Irish emigrants arrived in North America. They went from being survival tactics of ancient times to children’s fun, and fun tends to spread. Halloween is now a huge event not only in the USA but around the world.
Halloween is now established in Ireland as a day of costumes and candy. But the ancient spirit of Samhain never really left. Bonfires, which marked all of the four major festivals of the ancient Celts, are still a staple of October in Ireland. Dark descends early in October in Ireland, so even as early as 6:00 pm, trick or treaters have to navigate in the dark, never quite knowing what is in the shadows.