Samhain, meaning “end of summer,” signaled the coming of winter and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
“In the olden days, this was a mighty harvest feast,” granddad said when we sat at the table eating our colcannon, after dunking for apples in the wooden tub that my mother filled with water and set in the middle of the kitchen floor.
“It started on November’s eve and went on for three days and nights,” granddad added.
Loading his pipe with tobacco, he continued: “We always said that when the crops were saved, it was time for the earth to rest. When we lit the bonfire, we scattered the ashes on the land to ensure good crops for the coming spring when I was a gars_n.”
“When can we do the turnips?” I asked my mother as she moved closer to the fire with her cup of tea.
“Let ye go out and bring in a few from the shed and I’ll get the sharp knife,” she said.
We knew that Jack-o-lanterns lit the way for our visiting dead. We knew it because granddad said so. My mother would not let us near the knife but we took turns drawing faces on the turnips and jumping with delight when she followed our lines with the sharp blade. It took her ages to scoop out the insides of three turnips.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I asked granddad while my mother placed one turnip in each of the three windows.
“Maybe I do and maybe I don’t,” replied granddad as he cut a chunk of tobacco and kneaded it with his palms.
“Some say that ghosts roam the earth on Samhain when the veil between this world and the other is as thin as that smoke coming out of my pipe.”
He twisted a piece of newspaper to make a taper and reached into the turf fire to get another light for his clay pipe. Then he leaned back in his chair, and we children watched the smoke make black ringlets that floated above his gray head.
Many of the old practices, such as parading to the beat of the bodhr_n while carrying tree branches lit from the bonfire, had died out by then.
But I was glad that the practice of carving of turnips was still practiced. When the moon chased the sun out of the sky, these eerie faces peered from our cottage windows.
Any crops still in the field were considered taboo, and left as offerings to the nature spirits. My mother forbade us to eat berries still hanging on bushes after November 1st.
“The P_ca might have spat on them,” she warned. Although I wasn’t sure I believed her, I did wonder what this shape shifting spirit might look like if we crossed paths in the gooseberry garden, or behind the rick of turf.
I might be snatched away from my snug home with its thatched roof. If our donkey or gander, or any of the farm animals, acted in a disagreeable manner around this time of year, I suspected the poor animal was taken over by a p_ca. And when next-door’s goat, in spite of barbed wire and a spancel on two of his hooves, found his way into our field, my mother remarked: “May God protect us. There’s something unnatural about that flamin’ goat.”
Shaking her head she added, “But sure, ’tis that time of year again.”
Despite the collapsing economy here in America and all over the world, Halloween costumes are flying off the shelves again this year. Whatever about the return of the dead, this holiday seems to be a spirit lifter for the living. As for me, I enjoy connecting it to the past.
Every October 31st since I began teaching Irish language and dance back in the 1980s, I have organized a Samhain party. I invite students and friends to a celebratory dinner at a New York restaurant.
We dress as characters in Celtic history or mythology, and share the story of a chosen spirit. Teachers, carpenters, massage therapists and accountants become ancient gods and goddesses.
Robed in bright colors, they regale each other with tales of their healing powers and magic. Patriots and heroes like Grace Plunkett inhabit the bodies of New York lawyers, painters and librarians.
Scribes like Synge, Lady Gregory and Yeats remind us to read their poetry and see their plays. Folk Singers sing songs of the sea, and winged beings might ask cats to join in a step of “The Fairy Reel.”
When the spirits fade back to that space beyond the veil, we finish off dinner with the traditional Bar