Halloween – An Ancient Celtic Festival
Halloween is celebrated in many parts of the world, and as a child I always enjoyed dressing up in my fairy costume and playing games with my siblings. It was always a night filled with fun and nice treats to eat. Of course there were also lots of spooky ghost stories to be told, when the adults would enjoy scaring us all silly. I have to admit that I never really gave much thought back then as to why we celebrate this event each year, or where Halloween even originated. But recently I grew curious and decided to do a little bit of digging.
I was amazed then to discover that Halloween has it’s origins firmly rooted right here in Ireland. In the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-en).
The Celts celebrated 4 main festivals each year:
– Imbolc : February 1st, the start of Spring and St. Brigid’s feast day.
– Beltaine : May 1st, the beginning of Summer.
– Lughnasa : August 1st, the start of the harvest.
– Samhain : November 1st, the New Year and the end of the harvest season.
Of these 4 festivals, Samhain was considered to be the most important.
As far back as 2,000 years ago in Celtic Ireland, the feast of Samhain was celebrated every year. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain marked the end of the harvest season. But it most importantly acted as the divide between the lighter side of the year (Spring and Summer), and the darker side of the year, with the onset of Winter. The festival began on the evening before Samhain, at sunset on October 31st. It was seen as the Celtic New Year celebration, and a very spiritual time of year.
But there was also a spookier side to this festival as it was believed that as one year came to an end, and a new year started, the time just in between the two allowed the veil between here and the spirit world to open. This gave those in the spirit world access to this world for a short time.
This gave rise to many customs and traditions that we still practice today, although not quite for the same reasons. In order to ward off any attention from evil spirits, people dressed up in costumes and wore scary masks to disguise themselves as evil spirits. They would make lots of noise also in a bid to scare away any potentially nasty spirits. A turnip (swede) would also be carved out with a scary face and a lit candle placed inside it. This was then left on the doorstep to keep away unwanted guests. However family ancestors were welcomed back home on this night, as it was believed that they would also return to their former homes at this time.
The Great Fire Festival
The Fire Festival was central to the New Year celebrations of Samhain. Tlachtga and Tara are two hills located in the Boyne valley in County Meath, Ireland, and were deeply associated with the Samhain celebrations. A structure called the “Mound of Hostages” on the hill of Tara is thought to date back 4,500 – 5,000 years. Its entrance passage way is aligned with the rising sun around the time of Samhain. This suggests that the festival of Samhain may have been celebrated long before the first Celts arrived in Ireland 2,500 years ago.
However it was on Tlachtga that the fire ceremony was held, and it would begin on the eve of Samhain. The Druids played a central role in Celtic society. During the Iron Age, the Druids were those who made up the higher educated tier of Celtic society. These people included bards and storytellers, healers and seers, philosophers, teachers, and judges. The Druid spiritual tradition appears to date back some 25,000 years, where evidence of their existence in Europe has been discovered in caves, such as the Pinhole caves in Derbyshire, England, and also the Lascaux caves in France.
The Druids played a major role in the Great Fire Festival at Tlachtga. In order to mark the arrival of the darkness of Winter, all household fires were extinguished in every home on the eve of Samhain. The Druids would then light a large bonfire on the hill at Tlachtga, as a signal that all was well, and also as a public celebration of the victory of light.
Legend has it that every fire in every hearth in the land was then relit with a burning ember from this bonfire at Tlachtga. But as this would have been an impossible task, it would appear that each community lit their own communal bonfire to coincide as nearly as possible with the Great Fire at Tlachtga. Each home in each community would then receive a glowing ember from their local bonfire, in order to relight their household fire, thereby marking the domestic celebration of this feast.
A casting out of the old, and moving into the new. Fire is the earthly counterpart of the Sun, and these fires were seen as a powerful symbol of the Sun against the obvious decay and darkness of the impending Winter.
Everyone celebrated this festival with food, music, and storytelling. Special food would be left out for any returning ancestors who may visit during the night, and a fire would be left burning in the hearth for them. As it was considered best not to mingle with the dead, even the spirits of close relatives, most people would retire early to bed so as to avoid bumping into any of them. Either way, ghosts were thought to abound on this night, and most people decided to remain inside behind locked doors.
The offerings of food, drink, and warmth that were given to the ancestors were thought to bring good luck to the people of the house for the coming year. If this offering was not made, then it was believed that bad luck would ensue. The roots of “trick or treat” are to be found in this custom. The treat being the offering, and the trick being the bad luck prank that would be played on the occupants of the house if there was no offering made. It is also said that the Druids had a custom of collecting eggs, nuts, and apples from the homes in every community in order to ward off bad luck for the New Year.
In the 19th Century, huge numbers of Irish immigrants landed on Americas’ shores, especially during the Famine in the 1840’s. They took their Halloween traditions with them from this ancient Celtic festival. These traditions would become forever intertwined with the more local American customs, like carving pumpkins at harvest time, replacing the turnip or swede.
By this time Samhain had been renamed All Saints Day, in a bid by Pope Boniface in the 7th Century to lead people away from the more pagan traditions and rituals. Over time All Saints Day also became known as All Hallows Day, and the evening before as All Hallows Eve. This is where the term Halloween came from.
So this year as you accompany your children along the “trick or treat” route, spare a thought for our ancestors, remembering that none of us would be here right now, if they hadn’t come here before us. Then embrace the concept of this ancient Celtic festival with it’s accompanying celebration of fire. Fire that gives it’s life saving heat and intensely beautiful light to us all, that illuminates the darkness of Winter, reminding us of the brighter days yet to come in the New Year.
Enjoy this Harvest Feast!
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