Ahead of Hallowe’en, which is only around the corner, here’s my monthly column from the North Clare Local on Hallowe’en…
It’s that wonderful time of the year again: Hallowe’en. My second-favourite holiday has become far more popular in recent times, and some view it as an American import, strictly for the children. However, this is not the case. The revival of Hallowe’en in Ireland was simply a matter of the festival coming home.
Hallowe’en started out life as Samhain, the Celtic festival celebrating New Year. It was the last day of the Celtic year, or the point where the year turned from its ‘lighter half’ to its ‘darker half’. The Celts believed that this was the time that the curtain between the world of the living and the ‘otherworld’ was at its thinnest. Anyone with an overactive imagination can see why: there really is something deliciously spooky about this time of year- the chill winds, the darker nights, the harvest moon…
Bonfires were lit and all the other fires in the parish were extinguished. Each family drew a taper from the bonfire to light the fires in their own hearths. Cattle were driven between the flames, and people too jumped between fires.
As the dead were said to walk the earth, the living had to be careful. The dead have feelings, and failing to respect them could have terrible consequences. Extra places were set at the family dinner table for dead ancestors, and people told stories about the dead.
Our Scottish cousins, who share many of the same folkloric beliefs as us, called Samhain ‘the festival of the fairies’. Like the Irish, they believed that it was not just ghosts abroad on Hallowe’en, but fairies and all manner of spooks too. Our ancestors would wear masks and costumes in order to trick supernatural beings into thinking they were one of them. Trick or treating comes from the Irish ‘guising’ which also involved people going from door to door, begging for treats.
Christianity has been remarkably lenient with Hallowe’en, considering the kind of holiday it is. It was Christianised into All Hallows’ Evening, or the eve of All Saints’ Day, which occurs on November 1. The Irish believed the souls in purgatory got a 48-hour parole at Hallowe’en and visited the earth.
Waves of Scottish and Irish emigration to America increased the popularity of Hallowe’en. Turnip carving was a popular past-time with the Irish, but the dearth of turnips in the US led to the immigrants switching to pumpkins. Today, the Jack O’Lantern is synonymous with Hallowe’en. The tale is supposedly that Stingy Jack, a mean-minded Irish farmer of old, tricked the devil (various versions say he trapped him in a tree, turned him into a coin or placed a key into his pocket) and made the devil promise not to take his soul. Of course, Stingy Jack was too wicked to go to heaven, so he roams the earth, trapped between worlds, with only the Jack O’Lantern for light.
Pumpkins are a recent addition to the Hallowe’en feast. A more traditional food is the barmbrack, which contains a golden ring. The finder of this ring will marry within the year. Colcannon is the traditional Irish dinner on Hallowe’en night.
Divination was a big feature of Hallowe’en. Peeling an apple skin and tossing it over your shoulder would reveal your future spouse’s initials. An evocative superstition advised those curious about the future to visit a deserted crossroads at midnight and listen to the wind, whereupon you will find out all the things that will happen to you over the next year. The Scots believe you will hear the names of those destined to die. You will have to go yourself and find out, I’m not taking the chance!
In Wales, they believed that those who are fated to die within the year will hear a sigh on the wind. Also, you must never look at your shadow in the moonlight on Hallowe’en if you want to see another one. Walking alone on this spooky evening? If you hear footsteps, don’t turn around. It could be the dead, looking for you to join them.
Fairies found it especially easy to capture careless souls on Hallowe’en, but luckily they could be made release their prey if one threw dust at their feet. Cattle were anointed with holy water to protect them.
The dead were everywhere. Spotting a spider on Hallowe’en night meant a deceased loved one was watching you. If a candle flame turns blue or blows out, there’s a ghost nearby. As any horror fan knows, not all spirits have noble intentions. To ward off evil spirits, you need to ring a bell. This is probably connected to the exorcist’s toolkit of ‘bell, book and candle’.
Those born on the spookiest of all holidays will have the ability to see and talk to spirits. Sure, every family needs a medium.