Hallowe'en and Samhain
Shirley Lougheed gave a presentation in Youghal Library about the difference between Hallowe’en and Samhain and some of the traditions she experienced growing up, traditions which she learned from her mother and grandmother and which she now teaches her daughter and grandchildren.
This presentation was given in Youghal Library on the 31st of October, 2023.
“When we think of Hallowe’en nowadays we have a vision of pumpkins, ghosts, trick or treating. People dressing up and horror stories. We have a very American idea of what this festival is. I was asked, a few years ago, by my American cousin’s husband, who has never been to Ireland, unlike his wife,
‘do you guys know about Hallowe’en over there at all? ’
He was given a short version of this talk much to my cousin’s amusement! We still remind him of this at times!
So let us look at the festival itself- Samhain – pronounced “sow-in” in its ancient form.
Samhain is a Celtic festival meaning the end of the summer period, celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and parts of the U.K.
It is thought to have been celebrated for nearly 5,000 years, especially here in Ireland.
It celebrated the end of warm days, the end of the bringing in of the harvest and especially to remember the ancestors and (those) departed during the previous year
Many saw it as a liminal time of the year, when the veil between the other world and mortal world was thinning.
Druids would lead the ancients in a fire celebration of bringing light to this increasingly dark time of the year.
It was usually a three day festival. The month of November in in old Irish is named after it.
The date of the festival was when the whole of the harvest was “in” and stored for the coming darker , cold months rather than a calendar date like nowadays.
We have written descriptions of the ancient ways from the writings of Christian monks in the early 9th century Ireland ( the 800s)
Some references can be found in the first century B.C.
The Celtic day began and ended at sunset, druids would light a huge bonfire on top of a hill so everyone could see
The Hill of Tara and and Tiachtga, in modern day Meath in the Boyne Valley were where the solemn fire was lit by the druids.
The entrance to a passage tomb. the mound of hostages is aligned with the rising sun around Samhain. This mound is about 4,000 to 5,000 years old. This suggests a time line for us today of how ancient this celebration is.
The Celts were a pastoral people who divided the year into 2. On the first of May the Summer was coming and on the first of November , Winter was coming.
During the lighting of the sacred bonfire, a large wheel was lit and rolled down the hillside to symbolise the coming of darker days and the wheel of the year and the waning sun.
Cattle brought down from Summer pastures were driven through the sacred smoke of the bonfires to bless them for the coming months.
Offerings of the the first of the harvest were brough to the fire, food and drink were brought along also for the huge feast to follow the ceremony. for the people who gathered there to celebrate.
When the fire burned down the ashes were given to the assembled people to bring good fortune to the boundary and entrance to their homes for the coming year to protexct themselves and their livestock.
Ancestors were remembered and venerated. this was a huge tradition for the ancients and the veil between the two worlds thinned.
As the ceremony was finishing . stores were told around the bonfire of spirits, monsters and hauntings.
Some of our modern myths would have been told and retold then. Our myths were usually oral traditions.
The Christian Origins of Hallowe’en
The death knell for Samhain came in the 11th century when the Christian church enforced the three days associated with Samhain which now became a new Holy Feast called Allhallowstide.
The first we hear of this feast was when Pope Gregory VI, in 837 AD began the tradition of All Saints Day.
The abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Cluny in the Loire Valley. (St. Odile of Cluny, 962 – 1049 A.D.)began the tradition of All Souls Day.
This was adopted wildly by the Church and Cluny became a very influential monastery of the period.
This feast of Allhallowstide was shortened to Hallow Eve or Hallowe’en
The first recorded Costumes of Hallowee’en….
General Valency (1783 – 1803) spent some time in Ireland while stationed here to survey the country. He stayed and became an antiquarian who recorded Irish life. traditions and antiquities.
As well as General Valency, the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society records the graves and traditions of the Hallowe’en era.
SNAP APPLE is recorded as being played and as a chid in the 1970s I would have played this game an Oíche Shamhain.
Here are some of traditions and games practices of the era from the 1700s to the 20th century:
A feast was prepared by the household for Hallowe’en. People still believed the veil was thin between the world’s and protection was paramount.
A fruit Cake made with tea was prepare which would have a ring in it which foretold marriage for the finder. If you found a rag it told of hardships come.
Pancakes, apple pies, nuts and berries would be served. Potato Cakes were made and a punch drink with alcohol was available.
Children and adults gathered by a huge indoor fire, pryers were said and stories of ghosts, evil forces, evil faeries abroad were recounted by the fire.
On this evening , more than any other evening, the veil was thin and evil spirits would terrify the mortal population.
These gatherings happened in the relative safety of a house.
Here mortals took great care to disguise themselves and protect themselves from evil faeries and spirits. People would travel from house to house wearing disguises so elaborate that faeries would not be able to identify them. They would collect cake, butter, cheese, eggs and apples for a feast at their own household. It was really whatever people could afford to give them.
Holy water was sprinkled on the doorways, windows and over livestock and sheds which held livestock.
Travellers carried both IRON (faeries were afraid of IRON) and Holy Water, covering all traditions pagan and Christian.
Snap Apple was previously mentioned was played as wells ducking the apple in a bowl of water with coins and people try to take them out using only the mouth to grab. Divination and foretelling the future were polar pastimes but forbidden by the church.
People believed the souls of the departed loved ones would attend those partisans at other places where a feast was set for them. They were wells remembered at this time of the year.
We have a record of a RUSTIC PROCESSION in the district of Ballycotton to Trabolgan in 1852 which collected food. They trailed from farm to farm disguised with masks and maybe carrying TURNIPS carved out with a candle inside to light the way.
Verses were performed and songs sang, Usually it was men and boys who went on this trip.
When the song was performed, a levy of food was given to the travellers.
This is probably whe
re we get our TRICK OR TREAT tradition.
Pumpkins are not native to Ireland so turnips were carved. These are plentiful in the Irish countryside.
The Irish Museum of Country LIFE in SLIGO has this terrifying example of a carved preserved turnip. (see below).
As Irish emigrants moved abroad after the Great Famine and on though the 19th century, they brought with them their beliefs and traditions. The biggest influx was to the United States where the Irish continued the tradition of honouring the dead.
WE, in turn, imported from the United States the idea of “trick or treat?” and pumpkin carving, Pumpkins are a lot easier o to carve than turnips!
WITCHES & HALLOWE’EN
Why are witches associated with Hallowe’en? It was when Hallowe’en went to the United States that witches became associated with the festival. the Salem Witch Trials taught Christians to fear the idea of witches. Witches became associated with the OTHERWORLD, and the tradition of tradition of evil witches and the Otherworld and Hallowe’en all became mixed together.
The belief of All Souls , conjuring , cursing all became mixed together with witches and witchcraft and hence we have the number one costume for Hallowe’en being a witch.
As we have seen from the talk, the origins of Samhain are ancient. the mists of time can only roll back so far to allow us to see some of the beginnings . It has established itself firmly in the psyche of Irish life and minds. Even the Christian interpretation of it has not dulled the core belief of the veil thinning with the other world and the celebration of our dearly departed loved ones. WE embraced the Christian beliefs but held on to our own knowledge of the ancients. So despite occurring at the same times and containing similar themes, Hallowe’en and Samhain are not the same holiday .