An original Irish Jack O'Lantern
An original Jack O'Lantern from the early 20th century, carved from a turnip. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Oh, Halloween…a time for tricks, a time for treats, and a time for dressing in as many outrageous outfits as possible. For those of us who grew up in the United States, this is the opportunity to celebrate a holiday whose sole purpose is to look silly and eat too much, all without a conflicting history of who killed whom and who took over whose country. But it’s not like Halloween doesn’t have any history — Americans didn’t abruptly decide that the end of October was the perfect time to eat loads of candy and throw parties. So here, at the beginning of November, I’d like to take you through some of the early roots of Halloween in Celtic- specifically Irish- culture.

“Why are you writing this in November?” you may be asking. The simple answer is that the modern incarnation of Halloween comes from early Celtic celebrations to mark the end of summer and the beginning of winter. This transition, called Samhain (pronounced saw-win) in contemporary Irish Gaelic, referred to a literal “summer’s end” in early Gaelic and was marked by harvests of crops, herd culling, feasting, and sacrifice. And yes, the latter was occasionally of the human variety. Today, Samhain just so happens to be the Irish word for November, and Halloween is called Oíche Shamhna (ee-huh aw-na), hence the title of this post- which, in English, means “the night of Samhain is here!” Its formal date, October 31, appears to date from the 8th century, when the Catholic church designated November first as All Saints Day.

We don’t know a whole lot about early Celtic celebrations of Oíche Shamhain that is undisputed fact, at least beyond what I’ve already relayed. The early belief was that the transition period between summer (light) and winter (darkness), lasting about a week, was marked by a thinning between the mortal and spiritual worlds such that humans could mingle with the Celtic gods and the souls of the dead. It was also a phase marked by an increase in activity from the sídhe (shee), or fairy-folk, including the bean-sídhe, or legendary banshee (side note: the Irish root for banshee literally means “woman fairies,” and for those who have never heard of them, banshees are reputed to predict, or even cause, death with their keening. What does THAT say about loud females?). Currently, stories abound that there was even a god of death who walked the world on these nights, whose name was — you guessed it — Samhain. While there’s no historical evidence that such a god existed in Celtic mythology, the folk belief in increased supernatural activity generally kept people inside during the darker hours.

Some current Halloween traditions, however, do appear to date from the early Celtic celebrations. Jack O’Lanterns, for example, were originally carved in turnips in Ireland. Legend has it that a dead blacksmith named Jack, denied entry into Heaven, placed a candle in a carved turnip to light his way as he wandered the world. Doing the same and placing it in a window or doorway was expected to keep the spirit of Jack away for another year. Another tradition- bonfires- comes from these early celebrations as well, although the Celts didn’t only burn firewood. Bones from sacrifices and meals would be thrown in as well, hence the Irish name for them: tine cnámh, or literally, bone fires. Costumes, too, appear to date from these early days as a means of disguising oneself from the spirits wandering the land (hence the popularity of goblins and witches as costumes!), but the historical connections are a bit sketchy.

Traditions that haven’t survived as strongly, at least in the United States, follow along the lines of divining one’s future spouse, chances at wealth in the new year, and likelihood of good health. Tricks such as placing ivy leaves in cups of water were used to determine whether one would be healthy until the next Night of Samhain, while apple peels, when tossed over one’s shoulder, would tell you the first letter of your future lover’s name. Nuts, roasted on a fire, would tell you whether you and your partner were destined to stay together in the coming year. Blindfolded girls would pull cabbages from the field, and the amount of earth on the plant’s roots would indicate whether future spouses would be wealthy or poor. Again, the roots of these traditions in early Celtic celebrations aren’t well-known; however, they thrived in a more contemporary Ireland for many years!

I recommend looking at some Irish tales of Halloween for further information, especially because more contemporary folklore seems to be centred on this one night. However, I also recommend being wary of your sources: after the British took over Ireland, several English authors (most notably Geoffrey Keating and Lady Jane Francesca Wilde) used Oíche Shamhna as a setting for lurid (and exaggerated) stories about the depravity and primitive nature of the Irish. I recommend a small compendium of Irish folklore that’s come out from Hephaestus Books. In the meantime, light your turnips and prepare for the Celtic new year…Oíche Shamhna has arrived!