Hallowe’en Part I: Samhain –– The Celtic roots of Hallowe’en October 27 2022
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.