Hallowe’en is an ancient Celtic festival, which marks the end of harvest time and the onset of winter. Traditionally, it is a time when evil spirits and demons stalked the land. This stems from the belief that the darker days of winter were the realm of the devil. In modern terminology, we would say that we walk on the “Dark Side” during the winter months, while we walk on the side of light in spring, summer and autumn.
The Celtic lands now include Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany (in north west France). Formerly England, France and Belgium were part of the Celtic realm but with later conquests, lost most of their Celtic character. Before the coming of Christianity, the Celtic peoples used to worship the Sun and other Gods of nature. Ancient Celtic societies were ruled by an aristocracy which consisted of warriors and Druids. The Druids were the learned men and the priests of the Celtic pagan religions. As such, they were extremely powerful and helped shape and mould their society and their conversion to Christianity ensured trouble free acceptance of the new religion amongst the population. What we now know as All Hallows Eve is a Christianised version of a much older pagan festival. November 1st is All Saints Day. Significantly, Hallowe’en in the Irish language retains its old pagan name Oíche Shamhna, the night before Samhain. Samhain was the big pagan festival we are referring to here. In modern Irish, it has now come to mean the month of November.
The Druids marked the festival of Samhain by feasting and lighting bonfires. It was a celebration and a thanksgiving to the gods for the harvest. People used to light fires and candles to guide departed loved ones safely home to their earthly dwellings. They also believed that on the last night of the Old Celtic Year (31st of October), the Lord of Death gathered together the souls of all those who had died in the previous year and had been condemned to live in the bodies of animals, to decree what forms they should inhabit for the next twelve months. The severity of his sentences could be lessoned by offering him gifts and prayers. As we know from our modern interpretation of Hallowe’en, the black cat symbolises luck and depending on your frame of mind, either good or bad luck. But did you know that the black cat was central to the whole Druids belief system? In Celtic times, it was feared because people believed that they were humans trapped by malignant spirits in animal form. The howling of wolves was also central to Hallowe’en as this was the time when the flocks of cattle and sheep were brought into the farm yards for the winter months. Thus, the wolves had to come that bit closer to humans in order to get at their usual prey. The witches represent the evil spirits which were released onto the earth at that time.
Many of the games we play today have survived from ancient times. Hallowe’en games such as bobbing for apples comes from the worship of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit. She represents the harvest element of Hallowe’en. Traditional games in Ireland drew their origins from these ancient Celtic customs. Eating barm brack (báirín breac) with a ring placed inside it, is still practised. It was believed that the person who got the ring would be married within the year. Girls would place hazelnuts on the fire to foretell the fidelity of their future partners. If the hazelnut crackled and exploded, it signified a doomed relationship, otherwise you were in the clear!! Girls used to throw a ball of yarn out the window and whisper the name of her beloved. If he cooperated by pulling the other end of the string, they would hopefully be a match made in heaven!! Originally, dressing up for Hallowe’en was an exercise in cover and camouflage from the devil and his evil spirits by enabling you to blend in with them.
While Hallowe’en originated in the Celtic lands such as Ireland, it has been taken to a whole new commercial level in America. The Americans have converted it to a truly global event and our celebration of Hallowe’en here has become significantly Americanised.
Oíche Shamhna shona daoaibh go léir!! Happy Hallowe’en to one and all!!
First Edition Hallowe’en Books