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Hibernian Chronicle Celtic origins of Halloween

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Many centuries ago in ancient pre-Christian Ireland, Celtic society marked the first day of November as New Year’s Day. They called it Samhain — Celtic for "the end of summer." Samhain eve, Oct. 31, was a night of supernatural sights and sounds, where the dead walked the earth to make contact with the living and strange things happened. It’s a Celtic tradition that has survived to this day, albeit with many changes and adaptations, as Halloween.

Samhain was the most sacred of four high holy days that marked the Celtic calendar, the others being Imbolc (Feb. 1), Bealtaine (May 1), and Lughnasa (Aug. 1). Like Samhain, each marked the change of a new season and was closely associated with the agricultural cycle.

On one level, the association of Samhain with death is obvious, for it marked the harvest, the end of the agricultural year. But it also stemmed from the fact that the Celts viewed time as cyclical (as opposed to our modern notion of linear time). The year ended at sundown Oct. 31 and a new one began the next day. In between was a night outside of ordinary time (somewhat like the number 0) when the normal boundary between the world and the otherworld was temporarily dissolved, thus allowing the spirits of the ancestors to wander among the living.

As a result of this opening to the ancestors, the Druids, high priests, if you will, of Celtic religion, considered Samhain to be the best time for divination and prophesy. In many parts of the Celtic world, marriages were arranged and contracts renewed on this day.

Traditionally, Celts celebrated Samhain by building huge bonfires on hilltops. Celts also placed candles in hollowed out turnips and gourds, the precursor to the modern jack-o-lantern. Many placed candles in the windows of their homes to guide the spirits as they walked about. Believing that the ancestors returned to their former homes on this night, Celts set out food for the departed. They did so out of a combination of hospitality and fear. Those who failed to set out food and light candles might incur the anger of the dead and find their field trampled or cattle set loose. Here we see the origin of Halloween’s notion of trick-or-treat.

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With the arrival of Patrick and other missionaries in Ireland in the 5th century, Samhain, like so many other Celtic traditions, was transformed into a Christian holy day (similarly, Imbolc on Feb. 1 was Christianized to become St. Brigid’s day). Like Samhain, All Soul’s Day became a day for remembering departed loved ones and the night before — All Hallows Eve — one fraught with fearful notions of ghosts and spirits.

Over the centuries All Hallows Eve evolved into a night when young men and women, often dressed in disguises and costumes, engaged in raucous behavior and mischief making. Merchants and homeowners were encouraged to provide food and drink to these rowdies as a way to ensure that no harm came to their property.

Irish and Scottish immigrants brought this tradition with them to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here, it underwent further adaptation. Hollowed gourds and turnips were replaced by the bigger and more plentiful pumpkin. By the late 19th century, Halloween was increasingly seen as a wholesome night of fun for children. Trick-or-treat ceased to have any sinister connotation and came to mean simply, "where’s the candy?"

In recent years, Halloween has once again been transformed. Evangelical Christians (the same ones who want to ban Harry Potter books) denounce Halloween as nothing short of Satan worship and try to provide alternative ways for children to have fun on Oct. 31. Despite this effort, Americans as a whole have gone mad for Halloween. This year alone total sales of Halloween-related goods will top $6 billion — more than Easter, Valentine’s Day, or Thanksgiving. Only Christmas is bigger.

Indeed, the American Halloween has grown so big that it is being re-exported back to Ireland and the rest of Europe. These days if you’re in Dublin in late October you’re likely to see more pumpkins than shamrocks or harps. How’s that for scary?

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

Oct. 24, 1880: The Ladies Land League is founded in New York.

Oct. 25, 1920: Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney dies in a British prison after a 74-day hunger strike during the War for Independence.

Oct. 26, 1931: Eugene O’Neill’s play "Mourning Becomes Electra" opens at Guild Theatre in New York City.

Oct. 26, 1990: Tom Clancy of the Clancy Brothers dies.

Oct. 31, 1903: John Barrymore makes his stage debut in "Magda" at the Cleveland Theatre in Chicago.

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

Oct. 26, 1914: The first child star of the silver screen, Jackie Coogan, isborn in Los Angeles.

Oct. 30: 1892: Nationalist and organizer of the Blueshirts, Eoin O’Duffy, born in Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan.

Oct. 31, 1931: Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins born in Rome, Italy.

Oct. 31, 1961: U2 drummer Larry Mullen born in Dublin.

Readers may reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.

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