Now you all know us Irish are humble to the bone, and are loath to ever mention our accomplishments.
So naturally you know we’d hate to make a fuss, or call attention to ourselves, but we thought we’d quietly point out that the holiday coming up on the 31st October, the second biggest celebration in the Western world, you know, Halloween…
Well, [flicks dust off shoulders and shrugs nonchalantly] we invented it.
See, Halloween actually originated from the 2,000 year-old Celtic Festival of Samhain, as Dublin schoolteacher and Celtic civilisation buff Eric explains:
The word ‘Samhain’ comes from the Old Irish language meaning ‘end of summer’. The Pagan Irish worshipped the natural cycle of life with emphasis on solar and lunar cycles and the changing of the seasons. They believed that on Samhain the veil between this world and the next was at its weakest and the spirits of dead ancestors could pass through.
Those crazy Celts had some eccentric ways of celebrating too:
The Celts wore costumes (probably animal heads and skins), to disguise themselves as evil spirits and avoid a spectral kidnapping by the real harmful spirits who were out prowling. Huge bonfires were lit to help guide the friendly spirits.
But how did Samhain become Halloween? Well, the seventh century saw Christianity influence the festival when All Saints’ Day or All-hallows, a day to honour saints and martyrs, was declared for November 1st. This made the night before it All-hallows Eve, which morphed to Halloween.
Of course you don’t invent a holiday without games. Eric tells me that the practice of ‘trick or treat’ may have derived from the rural practice of neighbours playing tricks on each other by moving cattle to different fields or stealing items from their houses for the night.
You may be surprised to learn the origin of the innocent ‘bobbing for apples’ as well:
Bobbing for apples actually originated from a divination game played by young men and women. You catch an apple with your teeth, peel the apple, throw the peeling over your shoulder, and the resulting shape of the peel will resemble a letter of the alphabet and also the first letter of your future true love.
So as you can see, we’ve been perfecting this little holiday for quite a while, just for the rest of the world to enjoy. Yes, you’re all very welcome.
In our typically humble and modest way, we host oodles of Halloween festivals around the country every year, with parades, fireworks, storytelling and general mayhem and mischief, to celebrate our spirit-fearing, party-loving ancestors.
Remnants of these ancient Celtic practices are often referenced in these fine festivities though. The Hill of Ward nearby Athboy in County Meath is, as myth has it, where the tradition of Samhain’s bonfires began. Eric enlightens us:
Sacred Bonfires were lit on the Hill of Ward (called Tlachtga by the Celts) to mark the passing of the Celtic year, and carried to seven other hills in the area. It is believed that this evolved into a practice of people carrying the fire from the larger bonfires home to their own hearths to sanctify the home.
That magical scene is recreated every year at the Spirit of Meath festival with a torch-lit procession from the Fair Green in Athboy, County Meath to the top of the Hill of Tlachtga, every October 31st.
Londonderry’s Banks of the Foyle Halloween Carnival is a typical modern celebration with fireworks and parades, but you’ll also find versions of ancient traditions among the scary movie showings and ghostbuster tours. There’s bobbing for apples and pumpkin carving – which originated from the myth of Jack O’Lantern, who made a pact with the devil leading him to spend the afterlife constantly walking through the night with only a burning coal in a turnip to light the way. There’s plenty of storytelling too – which the Celts loved doing on Samhain as they thought with all the spirits buzzing around, the Celtic priests could make predictions about the future.
So what do Eric’s kids make of their teacher’s stories about Ireland’s spookiest holiday export?
I do recount the history of Halloween with the children but it’s the dressing up that is always the number one priority for them; they ask me as early as September when they’ll be making their Halloween masks. There’s a great sense of fun in donning the costume that both adults and kids enjoy.
I think for everyone Halloween is really the ultimate means of releasing your inner child.
And for that, you know who to thank.
There are tons of spooky special events being celebrated all around the island of Ireland for Halloween.
Londonderry’s Banks of the Foyle Hallowe’en Festival takes place from 27 – 31 October 2012.