Traditional activities include trick-or-treating, bonfires, costume parties, visiting “haunted houses” and carving jack-o-lanterns. Irish and Scottish immigrants carried versions of the tradition to North America in the nineteenth century. Other western countries embraced the holiday in the late twentieth century including Ireland, the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and the United Kingdom as well as of Australia and New Zealand.
Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic & Pagan festival known as Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”).
To find the origin of Halloween, you have to look to the festival of Samhain in Ireland’s Celtic past.
Samhain had three distinct elements. Firstly, it was an important fire festival, celebrated over the evening of 31 October and throughout the following day.
The flames of old fires had to be extinguished and ceremonially re-lit by druids.
It was also a festival not unlike the modern New Year’s Day in that it carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new.
To our pagan ancestors it marked the end of the pastoral cycle – a time when all the crops would have been gathered and placed in storage for the long winter ahead and when livestock would be brought in from the fields and selected for slaughter or breeding.
But it was also, as the last day of the year, the time when the souls of the departed would return to their former homes and when potentially malevolent spirits were released from the Otherworld and were visible to mankind.
Samhain: its place in the Celtic calendar
The Celts celebrated four major festivals each year. None of them was connected in anyway to the sun’s cycle. The origin of Halloween lies in the Celt’s Autumn festival which was held on the first day of the 11th month, the month known as November in English but as Samhain in Irish.
The festivals are known by other names in other Celtic countries but there is usually some similarity, if only in the translation.
In Scottish Gaelic, the autumn festival is called Samhuinn. In Manx it is Sauin.
The root of the word – sam – means summer, while fuin means end. And this signals the idea of a seasonal change rather than a notion of worship or ritual.
The other group of Celtic languages (known as Q-Celtic) have very different words but a similar intention. In Welsh, the day is Calan Gaeaf, which means the first day of winter. In Brittany, the day is Kala Goanv, which means the beginning of November.
The Celts believed that the passage of a day began with darkness and progressed into the light. The same notion explains why Winter – the season of long, dark nights – marked the beginning of the year and progressed into the lighter days of Spring, Summer and Autumn. So the 1st of November, Samhain, was the Celtic New Year, and the celebrations began at sunset of the day before ie its Eve.
The origin of Halloween’s spookiness
For Celts, Samhain was a spiritual time, but with a lot of confusion thrown into the mix.
Being ‘between years’ or ‘in transition’, the usually fairly stable boundaries between the Otherworld and the human world became less secure so that puka, banshees, fairies and other spirits could come and go quite freely. There were also ‘shape shifters’ at large. This is where the dark side of Halloween originated.
Samhain marked the end of the final harvest of the summer, and all apples had to have been picked by the time the day’s feasting began.
It was believed that on Samhain, the puca – Irish evil fairies (see right hand column) – spat on any unharvested apples to make them inedible.
To ward off the evil let loose at Samhain, huge bonfires were lit and people wore ugly masks and disguises to confuse the spirits and stop the dead identifying individuals who they had disliked during their own lifetime.
They also deliberately made a lot of noise to unsettle the spirits and drive them away from their homes. The timid, however, would leave out food in their homes, or at the nearest hawthorn or whitethorn bush (where fairies were known to live), hoping that their generosity would appease the spirits.
For some, the tradition of leaving food (and a spoon to eat it!) in the home – usually a plate of champ or Colcannon – was more about offering hospitality to their own ancestors.
Just as spells and incantations of witches were especially powerful at Samhain, so the night was believed to be full of portents of the future.
Trick-or-treating, is an activity for children on or around Halloween in which they proceed from house to house in costumes, asking for treats such as confectionery with the question, “Trick or treat?” The “trick” part of “trick or treat” is a threat to play a trick on the homeowner or his property if no treat is given. Trick-or-treating is one of the main traditions of Halloween. It has become socially expected that if one lives in a neighbourhood with children one should purchase treats in preparation for trick-or-treaters.
Evolution of Halloween
The history of Halloween has evolved. The activity is popular in the Ireland, the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and due to increased American cultural influence in recent years, imported through exposure to US television and other media, trick-or-treating has started to occur among children in many parts of Europe, and in the Saudi Aramco camps of Dhahran, Akaria compounds and Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia. The most significant growth and resistance is in the United Kingdom, where the police have threatened to prosecute parents who allow their children to carry out the “trick” element. In continental Europe, where the commerce-driven importation of Halloween is seen with more skepticism, numerous destructive or illegal “tricks” and police warnings have further raised suspicion about this game and Halloween in general.
Part of the history of Halloween is Halloween costumes. The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays goes back to the Middle Ages, and includes Christmas wassailing. Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of “souling,” when poor folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2). It originated in Ireland and Britain, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy. Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of “puling [whimpering, whining], like a beggar at Hallowmas.”
Top 10 Irish Halloween Traditions
The celebration of Halloween began in Ireland in about 1000 AD so its no wonder that there are so many Irish Halloween traditions that continue around the world every year.
Back then Halloween was pagan festival called “Samhain” meaning “end of summer”. The Celts believed that on the eve of Halloween dead spirits would visit the mortal world. They lit bonfires to keep evil spirits away and dressed in disguises.
Although our Halloween is less about dead spirits and more about having fun and dressing up there are some traditional aspects of an Irish Halloween that we have keep going.
Here’s list of some ancient and some more recent traditions from Ireland that have stuck over the years:
Samhain was seen as the end of summer but also the beginning of another year. It was also the one day of the year when spirits could walk the earth. The community would gather together and light huge fires to ward off bad fortune for the coming year and any evil spirits.
Some believe that people extinguished their fires at in the hearth at home before they left and would reignite them using an ember from the bonfire, for good luck. The day after the bonfire the ashes were spread across the fields to further ward off bad luck for the farmers during the year.
It was also traditionally believed that the bonfire encourages dreams especially of your future husband or wife. It was said that if you drop a cutting of your hair into the embers of the fire the identity of your first husband would be revealed.
There are two schools of thought on why the Irish carried Jack-o-lantern. One is that the tradition is an ancient Celtic tradition. In order to carry home an ember from the communal bonfire the people would hollow out a turnip so they could walk home with the fire still burning.
The other version is a little more spooky. The other story is that Jack-o-lanterns date back to the 18th century. It is named after an Irish blacksmith, called Jack, who colluded with the Devil and was denied entry into Heaven. Jack was condemned to walk the earth for eternity but asked the Devill for some light. He was given a burning coal which burnt into a turnip that he had hollowed out. Some Irish believe that hanging a lantern in their front window would keep Jack’s wandering soul away.
When the Scot-Irish emigrated to America in they adapted the tradition and used a pumpkin instead as it is more difficult to find turnips.
The community would gather around the bonfire and may would be dressed up in elaborate animal skins and heads.
The idea was that the evil spirits would be scared off by the fires. Then if the spirits happened to be wandering the earth and bumped into one of the Celts they might they were spirits themselves, because of their disguises, and let them go free. This is where our tradition of dressing up comes from.
Trick or Treat
Trick or treat originated centuries ago. In Ireland the poor would go from door to door at rich peoples homes and ask for food, kindling or money. They would then use what they collected for their celebrations on Halloween.
(Pronounced kohl cannon)
This is the traditional dinner to have on Halloween night before you head out for an evening of fun and mischief. It is a simple dish made with boiled potatoes, curly kale (a type of cabbage) and raw onions.
Traditionally coins were wrapped in pieces of cleans paper and slipped into children’s colcannon for them to find and keep. Sometimes people also hide a ring in the colcannon. Whoever finds the ring will be married within the year.
3-4 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 tbsp. milk or unsweetened/plain soy milk
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
2 cups chopped cabbage or kale
2 tbsp. butter or margarine
1/4 cup chopped onions or green onions
Cook potatoes in a pot of boiling water until tender. Drain, reserving water.
Place the hot potatoes in a large bowl.
Add chopped cabbage to the reserved potato water. Cook 6-8 minutes or until tender.
Meanwhile, fry the onions in the butter or margarine.
When they are cool enough to handle, mash potates with a hand masher or fork. Add the fried onions and cabbage.
Add milk, salt and pepper and beat until fluffy.
(From the Irish name Bairín Breac)
This is a traditional Irish Halloween cake which essentially a sweet bread with fruit through it as well as some other treats.
Shop-bought barnbracks still contain and ring but if you make it at home and add your own treats it’s even more fun. Each member of the family gets a slice and each prize has different meaning.
The rag – your financial future is doubtful
The coin – you will have a prosperous year
The ring – impending romance or continued happiness
The thimble – you’ll never marry
2 1/2 cups chopped dried mixed fruit
1 1/2 cups hot brewed tea
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon marmalade
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
Soak the dried fruit in the hot tea for 2 hours, then drain and gently squeeze out excess tea.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease a 9 inch Bundt pan. Stir together the flour cinnamon, nutmeg, and baking soda; set aside.
Beat the egg, sugar, marmalade, orange zest, and tea-soaked fruit until well combined. Gently fold in the flour until just combined, then pour into the prepared Bundt pan.
Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour or until the top of the cake springs back when lightly pressed. Allow to cool in the pan for 2 hours before removing. Continue to cool to room temperature on a wire rack. Press the objects of choice into the cake through the bottom before serving.
There are many games that are played on Halloween night and snap apple or bobbing for apples is one of them.
An apple is suspended from a string and the children are blindfolded and their arms tied behind their backs. The first child to get a decent bit of the apple gets a prize. Bobbing for apples is when some apples are dropped into a basin of water and the children have to go in head first and try to get a bite.
The apples are associated with love and fertility. It is said that whoever gets the first bite will be first to marry. It was also thought that if the girls put the apple they bit, while bobbing, under their pillow that night, they would dream of their future lover.
Shaving the friar
This old game was particularly popular in County Meath.
A pile of ash was put down in the shape of a cone with a piece of wood sticking out of the top. Then each player takes turns trying to digger the largest amount of ash without the pile collapsing.
All the while competitors chant:
“Shave the poor Friar to make him a liar;
Cut off his beard to make him afeard;
If the Friar will fall, my poor back pays for all!”
Blind-folded cabbage picking
Blind folded local girls would go out into the field and pull up the first cabbage they stumbled upon. If the cabbage had a lot of clay attached to the roots their future lover would have money. If the girl ate the cabbage the nature of their future husband would be revealed, bitter or sweet.
As we all know fairies and goblin collect souls as the trawl the earth on Halloween night….what you didn’t know! The story goes that if you threw dust from under your feet at the fairy they would release any souls they kept captive. However over the years this legend was changed.
Farm animals would be anointed with holy water to keep them safe through the night. If animals showed ill health on Halloween they would be spat at to try to ward off the evil spirits.