29 May 2022

Then & Now: From Samhain to Halloween

Then & Now: From Samhain to Halloween

According to Irish mythology, Samhain (like Bealtaine) was a time when the 'doorways' to the otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world

HALLOWEEN DAYS have changed a lot over the years from the old pagan traditions up to the present trick or treat days. The event has become commercialised, and shops have an abundance of items for sale to satisfy all the children needs. Halloween was originally a pagan festival called “Samhain,” meaning “end of summer.”
The Celts divided the year into two halves: the dark half from Samhain to Bealtaine (May 1) and the light half from Bealtaine to Samhain. In pre-Christian time Samhain was a very important festival marking the passing of summer and the beginning of winter.
November 1 the festival of Samhain was the Celtic New Year, which was replaced by All Saints and All Souls day’s when Christianity arrived. 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. At present our Halloween is less about dead spirits and more about having fun and dressing up. I outline some that have disappeared and some that still remain.
It was said that people extinguished their fires in the hearth at home before they left to attend the local bonfire and would re-ignite 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 for the coming year. It was also traditionally believed that the bonfire encouraged dreams especially of your future husband or wife. It was said that if ladies dropped a cutting of their hair into the embers of the fire the identity of their first husband would be revealed.
The tradition of dressing up so popular at present, comes from the following ancient tradition. The community would gather around the bonfire, and many 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 think they were spirits themselves, because of their disguises, and let them go free. It was believed fairies and goblins collected souls as the travelled the earth on Halloween night. The story went 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 died out.
There are different versions on why the Irish people carried Jack-O-Lantern's. One comes from the ancient Celtic tradition surrounding bonfires. 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 story is that Jack-O-Lantern's date back to the 18th century and is named after an Irish blacksmith, called Jack. He colluded with the Devil and was denied entry into Heaven.
Jack was condemned to walk the earth for eternity but asked the Devil, 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 Scottish and Irish emigrated to America, they adapted the tradition and used a pumpkin instead as it was more difficult to find turnips.
There was a traditional dinner to have on Halloween night before people would go out for an evening of fun and mischief. It was a simple colcannon dish made with boiled potatoes, curly kale or cabbage and raw onions. Traditionally coins were wrapped in pieces of clean paper and slipped into children’s colcannon for them to find and keep. Sometimes people also hid a ring in the colcannon and whoever found the ring would be married within the year.
There was a traditional Irish Halloween cake which essentially was a sweet bread with fruit through it as well as some other treats similar to our barm bracks (From the Irish name Bairín Breac). The shop bought barm bracks still contain a ring but if you make a cake at home and add your own treats it’s even more fun. Each member of the family can get a slice and each prize has different meaning.
Different items were used in different areas mixed in the ingredients. The finder of the nut would remain single and the finder of the piece of wood would be beaten by their spouse. The finder of the pea meant a life of poverty and a rag meant a doubtful financial future. Finding the coin meant you would have a prosperous year. If you found the thimble you would never marry, and the finder of the ring would be the first in the house to get married.
There are many games that were played on Halloween night and snap apple or bobbing for apples was one of them. An apple was suspended from a string and the children were blindfolded and their arms tied behind their backs.
The first child to get a decent bit of the apple got a prize. Bobbing for apples was when some apples were dropped into a basin of water and the children had to go in headfirst and try to get a bite.
The apples are associated with love and fertility. It was 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.
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.
Farm animals were not forgotten and would be sprinkled 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.
There was an old tradition to find out if you and your family would be in good health until next Halloween? Each person took a perfect ivy leaf and placed it in a cup of water where it was left undisturbed until the next morning. If a family member’s leaf was still perfect and didn’t have any spots on it, he or she would be in fine shape for the next 12 months. Halloween has become a very important festival in recent years, especially where there are young children, who are spoilt for choice with all the items on display in the shops.

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