Samhain –– Hallowe’en begins in Ireland October 31 2023

It figures that the land of Banshees, fairies and Leprechauns would be the starting place for a holiday like Hallowe’en. The Celtic word “Samhain” is actually pronounced “Sow-in.” This word literally translates as “summer’s ending.” After the harvest was gathered and stored, livestock had been sorted for slaughter or breeding, and the earth was perceived to have exhausted herself, this festival of Samhain was one of four high festivals of the Druid religion.

Leftovers from the harvested fields were piled up and burned. The rituals surrounding this festival had much to do with clearing away the old to make way for the new –– purging the old field to prepare the fields for new crops. It was also the last day of the Druid year and the day when all departed souls would return to their homes and when malevolent spirits were released as the earth gave up her strength and could hold these spirits back no more.

The bonfires offered some protection from these released unresting souls. The momentary instability of the boundaries between death and life made all sorts of spirits free to roam and haunt and frighten people. Fairies and leprechauns were not believed to be sweet and endearing beings but were untrustworthy and tricky sprites who needed to be outsmarted and watched carefully. “Changeling” babies could be substituted for one’s own child if the cradle were not carefully tended. Children were often dressed in disguises so that the fairies wouldn’t know who they were to steal them away and leave the family with some strange substitute for a little brother or sister. At Samhain, disguises were very important. Unattractive disguises, including downright ugly masks, drove the sprightly thieves away.

The Irish left food and treats out on the table to both appease these potentially unkind spirits, hoping that a show of hospitality might deter them from doing any harm or stealing any children, and also to welcome in the ancestors who might find their way home on this dark, important night. Also, parsnips or turnips (grown to bigger sizes on the Emerald Isle than in the USA) were hollowed out, carved, and lit with candles to shine the beloved home to the houses of their births, lives, and deaths. The traditions of treats and hollowed and lighted produce can been seen as starting here.

Farm animals were anointed with holy water to protect them through the night of roaming spirits. And unmarried girls would go blindfolded into the almost empty fields searching for cabbages. If they pulled up the first cabbage they stumbled upon and it had a lot of clay on the roots, the girl’s future husband would be rich.

Apples were considered a symbol of fertility and a happy marriage. Bobbing for apples or attempting to eat an apple on a string informed a girl of her future. She would keep the apple she first bit into and put it under her pillow that night. Tradition held that she would then dream of her future husband. Other blindfold games of Samhain included a table filled with varying objects. Blindfolded people would reach out and touch something and this would foretell the future. James Joyce’s short story, “Clay,” well describes this practice. A bowl of water meant emigration. A ring meant an impending wedding. A lump of clay implied death.

Orange and black were considered the colors of death. Irish famine immigrants brought these Irish traditions with them to America in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Our Own Children Now on Hallowe’en
Hallowe’en is meant to be fun, of course, but it also holds opportunities for us to allow our children to experience that death, too, is a part of life. Skeletons, ghosts (Ireland for a century or two kept a census of ghosts as well as of the living), and the barren fields after the harvest all speak to the human heart of the end of life. Children are no different and they sense on a deep intuitive level that this is true. It isn’t necessary (or beneficial) to frighten children, especially under the age of nine or so. Young children will experience the feelings around Hallowe’en without undue prompting.

Costumes are very fun and children love to dress up (well, we all do, really!). For children up to age nine or ten or so it is important to have costumes that do not hide the face completely. The face of a monster or an unknown person (to the child) can be disorienting and very scary. The idea is to be out in the darkening gloaming and to feel a bit of a tingling thrill. To be frightened beyond recovery is not the point.

Think about costumes for your child that can help the child play act a person whom they might admire –– a prince, a king, a princess, a knight, Winnie the Pooh, Pinocchio, Pippie Longstocking, Mary Poppins, Harry Potter –– before thinking about monsters or fantastic beings or beasts. This is only because children will take on a bit (or a lot) of the character of the costumes they choose. Trick or treating should always be with a grownup and the grown up can then talk a child through things that might be too scary or too overwhelming for them. The human voice can be soothing if the child becomes disoriented. Stay close and ensure that all parties and trick-or-treating have lots of friendly well-known grown-ups around to keep the mood cheery!

For the nine to eleven-year-olds a little more suspense is in order. Telling stories is always welcome and Hallowe’en provides an especially fine opportunity for good stories. Stories with some genuine surprises and scary parts are a good idea at this age. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, for example, or a ghost story, might be helpful for the children to test the limits of their own courage inwardly. The storyteller would need to measure the capacities and sensitivities of the children listening. The point is not to push the scary part, but let it arrive in a story artistically. Of course, for some particularly strong-willed or cocky youngsters, a good startle in a story is a humbling and helpful thing. This is in the hands of the one telling a story. A well-designer tale has to do with mystery and the weaving of the worlds between the living and the dead. It is important that children understand that all lives come to an end and that the love we feel for those who have passed is important, meaningful, and continuing.

Making costumes from scratch for this age group of nine-to-eleven-year-olds instead of purchasing pre-fab costumes is especially meaningful. It helps the whole family to think about who each in the family might like to “try out” as a personality. It also stimulates group creativity on how to express that different personality and how to genuinely disguise oneself. It takes time to figure out and make a costume, collecting the pieces needed over days or weeks. Time is a helpful agent in allowing children to digest what is happening and to build up a healthful sense of anticipation and excitement.

The coming of the darkness at this time of year is already provocative of fear and dismay as the summer wanes. The Hallowe’en celebrations in our American traditions help to both enhance this and to calm the worries with community and fun. To understand we are not alone as the season turns is helpful and supportive.

As for the candy that is given out in copious amounts as treats for the tricks of our costumes, communities who agree together to give out apples, or handmade little gnomes or other toys, with an occasional sweetie made with honey or sesame seeds are relieved when this is carried off without problems. It does need a round-the-neighborhood consensus however to be successful and to not leave handmade types at the mercy of ridicule. As parents, it is a good idea to reduce overwhelming numbers of sugary candy bars and chocolate things to manageable levels for a youngster to avoid illness, irritability, sleep disturbances, and a drop in the immune system!  Sensitivities to wheat, additives, and gluten are also to be considered in the treat collection from trick-or-treating.

The celebration of the end of the Earth’s hard work of the summer to nourish the living and to honor the dead is a good and very ancient tradition with a very important purpose. The courage of Michaelmas is tested this way and prepares the stalwart soul for the coming of dark times. It gives the children pictures for life of cycles of the year and cycles of a lifetime. It gathers communities together for social strength as the days grow short. It helps us to understand who we are as we try on different costumes of beings we are not! Allowing time for thoughtfulness and inner picturing of these significant things is the best preparation of all for us as parents, as teachers, and as participants in the great wheel of the turning of the year!