It’s that time of year: the air is cool and crisp, the trees burst in colour, the leaves crunch underfoot, the air is filed with chimney smoke, and pumpkin flavour is back on the menu. All of this means one very important thing – Halloween is just around the corner!
But what exactly are the origins of Halloween? Today wildly popular in America with costumed children as well as made famous by Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the festival of Halloween actually originated in Ireland as a pagan festival called Samhain (pronounced saw-when), with traditions stretching back thousands of years.
Though the festival has changed a lot, the origins of Halloween are quite old – though how old, it is difficult to say. Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, comes from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, which predates Christianity by a long shot, so the origins of Halloween or Samhain are at least a few thousands of years old.
Read on to find out more about the Irish origins of Halloween.
Traditionally celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, the festival of Samhain is meant to celebrate the end of the annual harvest season and the coming of winter. Samhain marks the time of year when livestock were brought in from their summer grazing grounds. Celebrated with great feasts, the ancient Celtic people also traditionally lit enormous bonfires to keep away the spirits of the dead thought to ‘awaken’ during Samhain.
According to Celtic culture, the transitions between seasons are associated with spirits and fairies – when the boundaries between the worlds were at their weakest. The most significant time of the year for spirits was Samhain, when the boundary between our world and the world of the dead dissolved. This one night of the year, it is said that spirits and fairies could easily cross into our world.
To keep the spirits at bay, the people left out offerings, mostly food and drink (not unlike the ‘offerings’ given out during Halloween festivities), as well as a seat at the feast table, to appease these stowaway ancestors and fairies. This was meant to appease the spirits and convince them not to get up to any mischief during their annual visit. Perhaps not the same as handing out free candy to kids who knock on the door, but you can see the connection!
The idea wasn’t to dress up as something (i.e. a pirate or vampire or Viking etc). Instead, the practice of disguising oneself is a sort of countermeasure to hide from the spirits and fairies.
Today largely practised by children, Samhain disguises used to be worn by all. Common disguises were simple – covering oneself in soot, a boy wearing his sister’s clothes (or vice versa), turning one’s clothing inside out, wearing a handmade mask made of sack or sheet, etc. These disguises were meant to confuse any spirits who might be looking for a specific person to do them harm.
Though pumpkins are from North America, the practice of carving vegetables comes from Ireland. In the past during Samhain, long before pumpkins made their way to Europe, the Irish would have carved turnips (far more creepy than pumpkins!) in order to ward off the spirits. Perhaps next year, you’ll get in the spirit of Halloween by trying to carve a turnip!
It is said that the idea of Halloween was carried to the USA by Irish immigrants (much like St Patrick’s Day was as well). Over time, the holiday gradually changed to fit with the American idea of Halloween – which is where the elaborate costumes, scary movies, free candy and bright orange pumpkins came in.
Learn more about other elements associated with Halloween from favourite treats to spooky sites, seasonal folklore tradition, horror writers authoring scary novels about vampires like Bram Stoker or the lesser-known Sheridan le Fanu or simply what weather to expect in autumn.
There are many Irish legends that relate to or take place during Samhain. One legend is that of the Hag of Beara. The hag (or Caillagh in Irish) was supposedly born on Samhain, and ruled the winter months until Bealtine, the spring festival, in which her counterpart Bridhge (or Bridget) would take over. Though the Hag of Beara myth permeated the whole west coast of Ireland, her story is particularly associated with the southwest and the Beara Peninsula, where there is even a rock said to be her turned to stone. (Explore the Beara Peninsula by biking the Kerry Peninsulas.)
A great influence on Irish landscapes, many places still bear her name, including Hag’s Head at the Cliffs of Moher, which you can visit on foot on our exciting hiking trip, Hiking Connemara and Mayo.
Many other Irish legends relate to Samhain, including that of the mythical Cattle Raid of Cooley, an epic telling of a war fought between two Irish provinces by pitting their biggest bulls against one another, as well as the famous legend of the giant Finn McCool, the giant credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway. Learn more about Finn McCool.
Visit the Giant’s Causeway yourself by Hiking the Causeway Coastal Route & Donegal.
Today, practicing the ancient festival of Samhain has drastically diminished in Ireland, but the tradition carries on all over the world under the guise of Halloween. In Ireland, like many other places in the world, children and adults continue to dress up in costumes, pumpkins continue to be carved, candy continues to be given away. For those who do practice the pagan side of the festival, practicants may leave some kind of offering (food and drink) for the spirts, perhaps light bonfires to celebrate the end of the harvest, and ringing bells while asking for apples.
So this October 31st, when your getting your treats ready, putting the finishing touches on your costume and decorating your house with pumpkins, skeletons and more, keep an eye out for any wandering spirits or fairies taking advantage of the ‘doorway between the worlds’ that opens on Halloween!
Visit Ireland this Samhain for a spooky Halloween adventure!