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Have we forgotten the true meaning of Halloween?


This weekend we celebrate Samhain. A pagan festival originating from the Celtic spiritual tradition. In Celtic lore the year is divided into two halves associated with the dark and the light. Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “sow-en”) is the earliest known root of what we now call Halloween. It marks the beginning of the dark half of the year. 

Marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter, food played a huge part in Samhain celebrations, particularly here in Ireland. Not so long ago it was quite normal, at this time of the year, to smell the sweet scent of freshly baked Barmbrack wafting through the kitchen. A traditional celebration food it is made with fruits of the harvest. Customarily the Barmbrack is filled with particular objects, as a lighthearted fortune telling game. Whomever finds an object in their slice has their future foretold for the coming year. Hidden within this sweet bread are objects such as, a ring for marriage, a piece of cloth for ill fortune, a small stick for a marriage full of strife, a pea for bad luck, and a coin for wealth (originally a silver sixpence).

Similar to the Day of the Dead in Mexico, Samhain is a time to remember the dead. Rather than a gloomy or morbid occasion it is a colourful and festive time celebrating the lives of those passed on. With parties and celebrations extensive preparations would be made for the sharing of a communal feast, with deceased loved ones as the guests of honour.

To allow our ancestors to come and go freely, all doors and windows were left unlatched, with food set aside just for them. A special cake was also made exclusively for their consumption. This cake had to be left untouched by any mortal hand for the duration of the ritual period. Offerings of fruit and nuts would also be left outside homes to appease any mischievous or sinister spirits, whom might have pass over into the living world.

The Celtic people adopted a lot of traditions to accommodate the spirits, and keep themselves safe on Samhain (Halloween night). Pumpkin carving, for example, comes from Irish people carving faces into turnip lanterns to ward off evil spirits. Turnips were originally used as pumpkins do not naturally grow here.

The tradition of dressing up in a costume and trick-or-treating stems from the ritual of people dressing as the souls of the dead to go out and recite songs or verses in exchange for food, and offerings for the spirits. Now-a-days we continue this traditional, yet have we lost the true meaning of this particular ritual?

  • When did it become about us and not about our dearly departed?
  • When did this tradition turn from a community celebration into a parade of door to door candy collectors?
  • Where did the communal feasts disappear to?
  • Why do we no longer hear verse or rhyme in exchange for harvest fair?
  • When did we forget to place harvest at the centre of our celebrations?

Let’s not forget the Bonfire, a huge part of Samhain celebrations. The tradition began with a celebration that took place at Tlachtga Hill in the Boyne Valley, on the eve of Samhain (31 October). 

Signifying the birth of the Celtic new year a huge Samhain fire would be lit to mark the start of the festivities. his ritual also signifies that household fires could be relit and that the spirits could be welcomed into the home safely. People would extinguish their fires at home before make their way to Tlachtga (also known as the Hill of Ward). After the communal fire ceremony, they would take a light from the communal bonfire back to relight their own home hearth.Down the centuries Samhain fires have continued to be lit around the countryside. As a form of protection, in some areas ashes from these bonfires would have been sprinkled on surrounding fields. The added bonus of this, of course, is that the ashes improved the soil. A simple offering to the earth at harvest time.

Sadly, due to Covid-19 lockdown level 5, trick-or-treating will not be happening this year. Yet perhaps this is a gift in disguise.  An opportunity, if you will, to reconsider the meaning of halloween and how we celebrate it. To remember those who have past. To reconnect with our ancient Irishness. To explore how we can reintroduce Celtic harvest traditions into our own in-house celebrations.

May the season of harvest be kind to you & may the turning of the year bring you strength and joy. Blessed Samhain to you all.