You say Sow-een, I say Sah-wen: The Feast of Samhain, and the Gaelic Roots of Halloween

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How it’s New York: Well, hey, who in New York doesn’t like Halloween?
How it’s Irish: Samhain, lots of discussion of interesting foods and activities, and a quick mention of Bram Stoker.

Hween picWell, it’s Oct. 31, so maybe you’re counting the hours until it gets dark so you can head out trick-or-treating. Or maybe you’re planning to sit the evening by the fire with some apples or cider and tell a few ghost stories.

In honor of Halloween, we’re going to take a look at some of the Irish (and English, Scottish, Welsh, Manx, etc.) influences on the day.

The end of October and the start of November coincide with the feast of Samhain, one of the most important feast times in the year for the ancient Celts. Samhain was, and still is for modern observers, a time for gathering in the harvest, heralding the arrival of winter and awaiting the return of summer.

A lot of traditions we associate with Halloween, particularly in the United States, were adapted in part from ancient Celtic traditions and rituals – quite a few of which had been co-opted over the centuries by Christianity – as well as some more recent traditions from around Britain and Ireland.

In the Church’s calendar, the first two days of November became All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, thus making Oct. 31 All Hallows Eve (or Even or E’en), which over time morphed into the word Halloween.

Samhain is considered a time when the line between this world and the Otherworld become especially thin, and thus Samhain is when spirits and fairies may come to walk the earth. There’s a scene in Marsha Mehran’s second novel, “Rosewater and Soda Bread,” where at the end of Ballinacroagh’s All Hallows Eve party, all the festival-goers grab a loaf of soda bread before departing for home: “It’ll keep the folk from knocking down your way,” Father Mahoney says.

In Karen Cushman’s “Catherine, Called Birdy,” the family sits around the fire roasting apples that evening while taking care to stay indoors, for All Hallows Eve is “when ghosts walk.” But Catherine reflects that the only ghosts that she knows of are her little brothers and sisters who died in infancy – and why would anyone be afraid of them, she reflects.

The month of November tends to be a time for remembering the dead. In addition to All Saints and All Souls, Nov. 11 is the anniversary of the end of World War I – observed as Veterans’ Day in the United States, Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries, and Armistice Day in other countries. And these are, in themselves, remembrances of the dead.

Now, whether a lot of the things we associate with Halloween today are genuinely Celtic is subject to debate. At the very least, we can say that Dracula, first among vampires (don’t you forget it, Edward and Bella), was an Irish invention; Bram Stoker was a Dubliner, after all. But let’s take a look at some of them:

Jack O’lanterns

So, why DO people hollow out a giant orange squash and stick it on their doorsteps?

The story goes is that jack o’lanterns are an Irish import; according to most versions of the tale, people would carve out turnips to use as Jack’s lantern – and when Irish immigrants began coming to America, they discovered that pumpkins worked pretty well for that purpose too.

So is it true? Hard to say. David Skal, author of “Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween,” argues that the the story’s a bit apocryphal; generally, the jack o’lantern as we know it is pretty much an American invention. But turnip lanterns, however, are mentioned in Charles Kightly’s “The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain” as a common sight on “Punky Night,” the last Thursday in October.

Apples

applesSo you’ve probably bobbed for apples a time or two at a Halloween party, with varying degrees of success. Apples have figured quite heavily in All Hallows Eve traditions over the centuries; some sources indicate that the apples and water supposedly represented the crossing of the veil, and the promise that the warmer months will return.

It’s usual for apples to be used for different forms of divining and fortune-telling. One tradition supposedly had young girls stick apple seeds (each one representing a potential suitor) on each cheek, and whichever seed stuck the longest, the boy represented by that seed would become the girl’s husband.

Trick or treating

In the ancient times, it was strongly recommended that families leave an offering of food or drink for any spirits that might happen by. From All Hallows’ Eve to All Souls’ Day in medieval Britain and Ireland, it was the custom for people to go “souling:” going from house to house and singing to the family within to present them with “soul cakes.” The tradition mostly continued – in spite of efforts by Cromwell and the Puritans to squelch it in the 1600s – into the nineteenth century. (Some adults would supposedly go souling for a good bottle of ale while the kids went for the soul cakes.)

On the aforementioned “Punky Night,” children with turnip lanterns have traditionally gone door-to-door asking for pennies and sweets. On Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night in Britain, it’s a common sight for children go door-to-door asking for “a penny for the Guy.” The occasion also tends to be marked with bonfires, also a frequent part of Gaelic celebrations at key times of the year.

A blessed Samhain, and happy Halloween!

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