A little background on the Celtic New Year festival that went global
Millions of children and adults around the world celebrate Oiche Shamhna or Halloween every year, but perhaps few are aware of, or indeed care about, its ancient Celtic origins. Here in Ireland when I was a kid, we'd call to the doors of neighbours with a shout to “help the Halloween party!” People would fill our bags with apples, oranges, grapes and buckets of assorted nuts. If we got the odd Emerald toffee and a few coppers we were doing well. In many respects, our call to help the Halloween party reflected the original Celtic tradition of harvest celebration. It wasn't like it is today. Drop an apple in a kid’s Halloween bag these days and you’re likely to get a very qware look. Adults are more likely to fill today's Halloween party bags with refined corn syrup.
Origins of the word Halloween
We derive the word Halloween from the Scottish shortening of Allhallow-even or All Hallows Eve and relates to a Christian festival of All Saints, and the Eve of All Saints celebrated on the last day of October (circa. 1550s). In Christian terms hallowed refers to a holy or saintly person, as in “hallowed be thy name.” As you can probably guess, Christianity in its attempts to convert the “pagan” folk of Celtic lands, piggy-backed on their ancient festivals so that conversion to the faith might be an easier transition.
Anyway, let's carry on…
Ancient Celtic Origins of Oíche Shamhna
In ancient Celtic lands such as Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Britany & Normandy northwestern France, the 1st of November marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of darker, colder winter months.People called it, “An Samhain” in Irish (also; Sauin, Samain, An tSamhain, Samhainn). The exact etymology is unclear, however, many consider it to mean summer's end or harvest's end.
Celtic people considered An Samhain the time when the veil between the mortal world of people and the world of an Sí (Shee), the faery people, was lifted allowing the dead to walk amongst the living. They lit Bonfires to protect livestock and property and appeased an Sí with offerings of food and drink to ensure they survived the winter. They thought the souls of dead family members revisited their homes and they would set a place for them at the celebration table.
The people of ancient Ireland associated two hills located in the Boyne Valley, Co. Meath with Samhain; Tlachtga (Hill of Ward) near Athboy, and Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. Tlachtga was the location of the pre-Christian Fire Festival which began on the eve of Samhain, the Celtic New Year. People also associated Tara with Samhain, however, it was secondary to Tlachtga. They constructed the entrance passage to the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara to align with the rising sun around Samhain in early November and again in February. Archaeologists estimate The Mound of the Hostages to be 4,500 to 5000 years old, suggesting that people celebrated Samhain long before European Celts arrived in Ireland about 2,500 years ago.
Halloween in More Recent Times
In more recent centuries in Ireland, people celebrating An Samhain wore costumes and disguises to hide from evil spirits and cast the bones of slaughtered animals into bonfires. People prepared a feast for the living and the dead, and food for the ancestors was ritually shared with the less well off. Divination was also a big part of the festival and disguises often involved mimicking the Gods and involved gathering and sharing nuts, apples, and other autumn fruit.
As the Irish and others of Celtic origin emigrated in their droves to America in the 19th century, they brought their festival traditions with them. Over time, many different cultures blended with the Samhain festival. For example, the American harvest tradition of carving pumpkins and the Mexican tradition of el Día de los Muertos (The Day of The Dead), and An Samhain became better known as Halloween.
Last night we turned the clocks back and the evenings have become darker. People get gloves and hats and winter coats from the bottom of closets and the Northern hemisphere hunkers down for another winter. Halloween marks the end of the harvest and the brighter days.
So there you have it, a bit of useless information for a Sunday evening. Have a good An Samhain however you celebrate it.
How to pronounce Oíche Shamhna