Halloween — Did the Irish “think it up” – Or Not — And Does it Matter

A few years ago I got my Halloween comeuppance when I sent a seasonal e-card to my young niece Lily, probably 10 years old at the time and living in Dublin. In a thoroughly patronizing digital gaffe I inquired if they celebrated Halloween in Ireland. By return e-mail I was informed by Lily that “of course we do, they (the Irish) thought it up!” According to some schools of thought re. All Hallow’s Eve, Lily had it just right.

There are dozens of massive tomes on the topic of Halloween and All Hallow’s Eve – far more historic research and theory than I want to contemplate. So, with a nod to wise Lily, the focus here is on the Celtic origins of All Hallows Eve, one intriguing, if debatable, explanation of the roots from whence come our Halloween customs of today. Suspend modern objections for a few minutes and enjoy the abundance of delicious stories that float around Halloween – focus here on the Celtic tales.

Start with the historical fact that All Hallows Eve is the night before All Saints’ Day, November 1, long celebrated in the Catholic tradition that involved a vigil to pray for and honor the deceased who led saintly lives, particularly those who do not have a special day of commemoration.

Recognize that, as is so often the case, pagan celebrations long predate the Christian tradition. The pagan rituals surrounding All Hallows Eve involved bonfires and feasting on apples, nuts and harvest fruits. Mary Reed Newland writes that “the Britons celebrated in honor of their sun-god with bonfires, a tribute to the light that brought them abundant harvest. At the same time they saluted Samhain, the ‘lord of death,’ who was thought to gather together at least the souls of the year’s dead which had been consigned to the bodies of animals in punishment for their sins.” (1)

Samhain, a “very Irish feast” is the source of the Celtic tradition that offers one purported root of modern Halloween lore and customs. The Celts had a unique way of marking the passage of time; the year began in darkness and worked towards the light. Samhain was one of the four “quarter days” of the Celtic calendar, along with February 1, the start of spring, May 1, marking the start of summer and August 1, the start of the harvest. Supposedly, Samhain involved days of feasting before and after the actual day.

The challenge of Samhain was to batten down the hatches for winter – tending to the animals and filling the larder. For example, the Irish believed that all fruit harvested after November 1 is bewitched and thus inedible. Samhain also meant making peace, settling debts and a rich tradition of religious activities. Fires were extinguished, making All Hallows Eve the darkest night of the year, a darkness broken when the fires were re-lit on November 1.

For the Celts that dark night of October 31-November 1 was a time between years. During this dark night “the borders between our world and the otherworld(s) were flexible and open”(2) The night was filled with once-a-year visitors including the pooka who roamed free, a black, ugly horse with red eyes and the ability to talk; the pooka was into kidnappings and other undesirable exploits. Banshees could be killed by humans during the night; fairies were visible; the underworld palaces of the fairies (aka the gentry) were open for the creatures of the netherworld to come and go.

Though earthly folks were free to do whatever, the penalties for a misstep were such that most didn’t test the hazards of the night. Last but not least, the long deceased were free to revisit their earthly homes and, if they so chose, to settle debts. The bonfires set by the living were the highway helper system of the day.

Samhain morphed into All Hallows Eve when Christian missionaries took it upon themselves to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. In 601 Pope Gregory I issued an edict to the missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the people he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native people’s customs and beliefs, the pope, being a pragmatist, instructed missionaries to connect them with Christian practices, presumably to ease the “conversion” process for the unreconstructed Celts.

Still, Samhain didn’t make the cut as a Christian holy day. The essential paganism, with its emphasis on the supernatural, didn’t correlate with any Christian feasts. The Druids, the “clergy” of Samhain, were ultimately labeled evil worshippers or demonic gods and spirits. The Celtic underworld was predictably identified with the Christian hell.

Ultimately, the Samhain tradition and other Celtic customs were diminished but not obliterated. In the end, the Church defined them as merely dangerous, not malicious. And the Christian feast of All Saints was assigned to November 1st, the major Samhain celebration with the assumption that the pagan worshippers would switch to honoring every Christian saint.

On the one hand, it’s a stretch from Samhain and the early decades of the First Century. On the other, it’s intriguing – and eerily fun — to trace some of the customs to see if there is so much as a hint of a connection with Samhain or parallel theories in our ancient cultures. This is one story, as good as any, better than some.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m good with Lily’s contention that the Irish “made it up.” Still, I’m open to any good story that draws a line between those batmen and sponge bobs and princesses at the door and the customs of our forebears, even if they do go back a bit. Time just makes the story more enticing. In an era when we are loathe to look back to yesterday, mere consideration of what our ancestors were up to a couple thousand years ago is probably a good mental exercise. Know that deep thoughts about Samhain or any of the other ancient rituals that may or may not shape 21st Century Halloween traditions go best with a clutch of salvaged M&M’s at the ready.

(1) Mary Reed Newland, All Hallow’s Eve, Chapter 19 in The Year and Our Children. P.J. Kenedy and Sons, 1956, 270-278.
(2) Bernd Biege, “Samhain – A Very Irish Feast: The Roots of Halloween in Celtic Ireland. About.com, Ireland Travel.

If you really want to explore some other Halloween lore, stories and rituals, you might want to check out the following:

Rogers, Nicholas (2002). Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, New York: Oxford University Press.

Morton, Lisa. The Halloween Encyclopedia, McFarland & Company (2003). 240 pages.

These are two among scores of books and articles that deal with origins and traditions about Halloween. And then there are hundreds of books and articles about costumes, decorations, menus, and games – but that’s a whole other realm of interest!

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