The Celtic Year – the Festival of Samhain, Forerunner of Halloween
Updated: Aug 31, 2020
It’s just over two weeks until Halloween on 31 October and the shops are filled with pumpkins and costumes for both children and adults to disguise themselves as they get up to mischief. There are apples and nuts for sale along with the bags of sweets to give to the children who call at the door. Some will be planning bonfires and intend to go out trick or treating, but where does Halloween and the customs associated with it originate? The Key Festivals of the Celtic Year
In ancient Ireland, the Celtic Year was dominated by the four key festivals of Samhain, Beltane (covered in an earlier post), Imbolg and Lughnasadh. In this post we’ll cover the feast of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-inn’), which was on 01 November and was a forerunner to Halloween.
The Festival of Samhain
Samhain was on 01 November in the modern calendar – it was a sacred festival and marked the end of summer, the gathering in of the harvest and the start of winter. [i]
The eve of the feast was a time when the veil between the world of man - the earthly realm - and the Otherworld, or the realm of the sídhe (pronounced shee) or the fairy folk became blurred. There are stories of Celtic heroes venturing into the world of the sídhe but the fairy folk could also venture easily among the world of man at this time and this was perhaps not so welcome. [ii] The normal order of the universe was suspended and the fairy folk and the dead could interfere in the lives of mortals. [iii]
The Celts had a strong belief in the Otherworld and the eve of Samhain was also associated with divination and the dead. [iv] [v] They believed that the presence of the spirits of the dead helped their Druidic priests to foretell the future. [vi]
The Celtic year began with the feast of Samhain and of the four main festivals, Samhain and Beltane were the most important. Within Celtic mythology, many important events took place at this time and numerous stories within the mythological canon are set during Samhain.[vii]
Nemed was responsible for the third invasion of Ireland and his people defeated the Fomorians in four great battles, but many of Nemedians subsequently died in a plague. The Fomorians were then able to exert control over the Nemedians and ruled the country from their stronghold on Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal. They demanded a tribute from the people which was two-thirds of all the milk, the corn and the children of the land which they extracted each Samhain. [viii] [ix]
The deaths of famous kings and heroes such as Crimhthann (a High King), Diarmaid mac Cerbhaill (a High King), Conaire Mór (a High King) and Cú Chulainn (the famous hero of the Ulster Cycle) occurred at Samhain. [x]
Each Samhain, the fairy Aillen mac Midna burned Tara, the seat of the High King of Ireland. After lulling the inhabitants to sleep with the sound of his harp, he emitted a blast of fire from his mouth and burned Tara to the ground. This continued for twenty-three years until the eight-year-old Finn mac Cumhaill defeated him, killing him with a magic sword. [xi]
Finghen mac Luchta, a second century king from Munster was visited each Samhain by Rothniab, a woman of the fairy folk and each year she took him on a tour of fairy mounds so that he could see all of their treasures and then foretold to him the events that would happen in the incoming year. Fiachna, one of the kings of Ulster was visited each year by a fairy man who also foretold the future. [xii]
The Samhain Celebrations
The Celts celebrated Samhain by burning sacred bonfires. In a similar way to what happened at Beltane, people re-lit the fires in their own home from the sacred bonfire and having brought the cattle in from their summer pastures, drove them near to the flames to cleanse and purify them with the smoke.
Animals were sacrificed and people shared the meat and the fruits of the harvest at a feast, while the spirits of the dead were invited to join the feast. The Celts wore costumes of animal heads and skins – perhaps to deceive the fairies - and fortunes would be told. [xiii]
How did Samhain become Halloween?
On 13 May 609 or 610 AD, Pope Boniface IV instituted the festival of All Saints when he consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the Martyrs. All Saints is thought to have its origins in the Roman Festival of Lemuralis held on 13 May, when Romans performed rites to exorcise malevolent spirits of the dead from their homes.
In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III founded the Feast of All Saints on 01 November and suppressed the 13 May feast. In 835, Pope Gregory IV made this a day of obligation, meaning that Catholics were expected to celebrate mass unless they had a very good reason not to. It is solemn holy day dedicated to the saints of the Church, that is, all those who have attained heaven. All Souls Day on 02 November is dedicated to those who have died but not yet reached heaven.
All Saints Day is also called All Hallows or Hallowmas and the eve of that date is All Hallows Eve, which over time became shortened to Halloween. [xiv] [xv]
Customs associated with Halloween
Many of the customs associated with Samhain have been carried on into the Halloween traditions, several of which are still practiced today.
Apples feature in the Halloween games and traditions. In my own family, we put apples in a bowl of water and went bobbing for them, trying to catch them in our teeth and also haunched for apples by tying them from a height on a string and trying to catch them with our teeth. A coin was hidden in an apple tart and it brought good luck to whoever got the slice with the coin (as long as you saw it before biting into it of course).
Divination was practiced in more recent times too. Girls who wanted to know the name of their future husband would peel the skin of an apple in one piece and throw it over her shoulder – the peel would land in the shape of the initial of the first name of her future husband.
Another custom involved hazelnuts – two were roasted near a fire, one of which was named for the person roasting them and the other for the person they desired. If the nuts jumped away from the heat, it was a bad sign, but if the nuts roasted quietly, it was a good sign and foretold a good match.
The custom of ‘trick or treat’ is sometimes thought to have originated in America, but dressing up in disguise and going around the houses reciting songs in exchange for food was recorded in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man from at least the 16th century. Tricks were played and in some parts of the country, Halloween was known as Mischief Night. Nowadays, the children get dressed up in their costumes and go around the doors offering a ‘trick or treat’. If you don’t give them a treat, they’ll play a trick on you. It’s often suggested that the American celebration of Halloween originated with Irish and Scottish emigrants who brought their traditions with them.
People carved scary faces into turnips and lit them with candles – they were carried by those going around the houses but also set in windowsills to ward off evil spirits. My dad used to carve turnips for us when we were children and the smell of candles buringing in a turnip is a very distinctive one. The job of carving scary faces has become much easier with the ready availability of imported pumpkins at this time of year. [xvi]
Growing up, the spirit world wasn’t to be trifled with either and children around Ballymena used to dare each other to go to Crebilly where the headless figure of Squire O’Hara riding his faithful mare would try in vain to jump the white gates each Halloween. Squire O’Hara had been decapitated when urging his horse to jump the white gates that marked the entrance to his estate and the horse was shot due to its injuries. Funnily enough, I never knew anyone who actually took up the dare and I certainly didn’t!
So the traditions that we still observe at Halloween have their roots in a much earlier pagan past, made all the more interesting by the fact that much of the Celtic mythology was written down and ultimately preserved by Christian priests.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Natalie Bodle, a native of Northern Ireland is the author of the Roots Blog and founder of Roots Revealed. She is a professionally qualified genealogist and is a member of APG. She is also a qualified tour guide and a member of TGNI.
Roots Revealed provides genealogy research services to clients who are searching for their Irish, Northern Irish and Scots-Irish ancestors, in addition to genealogy tours and family history courses. For more information about the full range of services provided by Roots Revealed, please visit www.rootsrevealed.co.uk or get in touch by emailing email@example.com
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[i] MacCana, Proinsias (1983) Celtic Mythology. p. 27. Middlesex: Newnes Books.
[ii] Guirand, Felix [Ed](1987. The New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology. p.236. Twickenham: Hamlyn Publishing Group.
[iii] MacCana, Proinsias (1983) Celtic Mythology. p. 54. Middlesex: Newnes Books.
[iv] Rolleston, T. W. (1986) Celtic Myths and Legends. p.82. London: Studio Editions Limited.
[v] Conolly, S. J. [Ed]. (1998) The Oxford Companion to Irish History. p.497. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[vi] BBC. (2011) Religions. Samhain. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/holydays/samhain.shtml : accessed 15 October 2019.
[vii] Guirand, Felix [Ed](1987. The New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology. p.236. Twickenham: Hamlyn Publishing Group.
[viii] MacCana, Proinsias (1983) Celtic Mythology. p. 54. Middlesex: Newnes Books.
[ix] Rolleston, T. W. (1986) Celtic Myths and Legends. p.101-102. London: Studio Editions Limited
[x] MacCana, Proinsias (1983) Celtic Mythology. p. 127-128. Middlesex: Newnes Books
[xi] Johnson, Helen Sewell. “November Eve Beliefs and Customs in Irish Life and Literature.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 81, no. 320, 1968, pp. 133–142. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/537663 : accessed 15 October 2019.
[xiii] BBC. (2011) Religions. Samhain. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/holydays/samhain.shtml : accessed 15 October 2019.
[xiv] Catholic Online (2019) All Saints Day. https://www.catholic.org/saints/allsaints/ : accessed 15 October 2019.
[xv] Wikipedia (2019) Lemuria – Festival. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lemuria_(festival) : accessed 15 October 2019.
[xvi] Wikipedia (2019) Samhain. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain : accessed 15 October 2019.