Halloween is a fun winter festival, where little ones play trick or treat, party-goers wear elaborate fancy-dress, and people of all ages celebrate with feasts, supernatural stories and divination games. But did you know that many of the traditions come from our Irish Celtic culture? Over time, they blend with Catholic beliefs, and become widely popular through emigration and the modern media.
The origins of the Samhain Festival
In the 2nd century, the Celtic Coligny calendar of Gaul lists three specific feast days as “Trinuoxtion Samonii” or the three nights of summers end.
Nowadays, festivities still last for three days. People celebrate Hallowe’en on October 31st, All Saints’ Day falls on November 1st, and on November 2nd we mark All Souls Day.
Each of these focus on the changing time of the year, and on remembering the dead. Let’s take a closer look at these traditions, and their meanings.
Halloween, what does it mean?
The word Hallowe’en comes from All Hallow’s Eve. It’s the vigil for the night before All Hallows Day on November 1st, when the deceased revisit the mortal world. In Irish, we call it “Féile Oíche Shamhna” – Halloween Festival.
In the Irish Celtic Calendar, it is Samhain, the first day of Winter, or the dark half of the year. Samhain is the Irish word for November, and is pronounced “sow-in”. It is the start of the Celtic New Year. For the Celts, and the ancient Irish, the Celtic day and year begin in the dark times then move into light. So traditionally, we celebrate Samhain from nightfall on the 31st October, or “November Eve”.
Also known as Oiche na Sprideanna (Spirit Night) or púca’s night, the Irish believe it to be a time of ghosts and spirits. On this evening, we cross the threshold between light and dark. The veil is thin between the realms of the living and the dead. Souls of the departed roam free amongst their community. Fairies and devilish sprites are abroad, and people can cast charms and spells to tell their fortunes!
In the mid-8th century, Western Christianity attempts to quash these “pagan practises” by shifting the usual date of All Saints’ Day from April 20th to 1st November. 2nd November later becomes All Souls’ Day.
All Saints Day
This is a solemn holy day of the Catholic Church dedicated to the saints who have already attained heaven.
All Souls Day
This holy day is set aside for honouring the dead. Catholics believe that through the prayers of the faithful on Earth, the dead are cleansed of their sins so they may leave purgatory and enter into heaven.
Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merge to create the modern-day festivities of Halloween.
- Halloween is a secular holiday that comes the night before All Saints’ Day.
- All Saints’ Day is on November 1, and it is a Holy Day of Obligation.
- All Souls’ Day in on November 2, and it is NOT a Holy Day of Obligation.
Over the Ocean, and back again.
During the Great Famine in the 19th century, Irish emigrants take many of the Samhain customs with them when they move their families to the USA, Canada and further afield. Over time, they modernise and secularise the old traditions, leading to the family-friendly holidays we all know today. As the pumpkin is native to North America, Irish immigrants find it much easier to carve than a turnip. It’s now a favourite icon of Halloween. They also focus on children dressing up in spooky costumes to play trick-or-treat on their neighbours.
Did you know that Americans spend over 6 billion USD every year on Halloween decorations and celebrations?
For the last 200 years, we can find old tales about Samhain, Halloween and All Souls Day in rare books that detail Irish folk customs and traditions. All three days are important and are celebrated throughout Ireland. Feasting, fun and fortune-telling at Halloween, the end of the farmer’s year by Samhain, and rituals of respect and remembrance for the dearly departed on All Souls Day.
We’d like to share with you some of the most interesting customs below:
An A-Z of Hallowe’en Traditions in Ireland
A – apples, ancestors
APPLES and other Autumn fruits feature in pastimes of feasting and foretelling the future.
- Peel an apple in one long strip, and throw the peeling backwards over your left shoulder. The shape it makes on the ground shows the initial of your future spouse!
- If you want to know if your love is true, place an apple pip on the bars of the fire, with the words: “If you love me, bounce and fly, If you hate me, lie and die.”
- A popular game is bobbing for apples. Float apples in a half-barrel, and have the children kneel with their arms behind their backs. They duck for apples, and must catch one using only their teeth. Prepare for splashing and slipping!
- Snap-apple is another game, where you try to bite into an apple which twirls on a string above your head. You may not use your hands! You should secure a long string across the room, with apples strung at intervals. The lengths of string vary to suit the height of the game players.
In the old days, people made a great fuss of sharing a communal feast with the dearly departed as guests of honour. They believe that the dead hold all wisdom and lore, and they will return now to speak to their descendants.
On All Soul’s Night, we welcome the ancestors home. Rituals include sweeping the floor, lighting the fire, and putting the poker and tongs in the shape of a cross on the hearth. All doors and windows are left unlatched to allow the spirits to enter freely.
A bowl of spring water is the table centrepiece, and a place is set for each deceased relative. We prepare a special “soul-cake” and other party food for the dead. Thereafter, no mortal hand may touch these foods until November 3rd. Eating the food of the dead is a major sacrilege and condemns the perpetrator to becoming a hungry spirit after death, forever excluded from the Samhain feast!
B – barmbrack, bonfires
BARM-BRACK is a fruit loaf specially made for the season. The Gaelic name is “báirín breac” or ‘speckled loaf’. For fortune telling, you wrap various trinkets and bake them into the barmbrack. When you take a slice, you may get a token predicting your future! A ring means marriage within the year, a coin signifies riches, a thimble predicts spinsterhood, and a pea foretells poverty. A tiny wooden boat means a journey to Skellig Rocks and a blessing from God. Even today, you can buy a barm-brack in Irish supermarkets at Halloween. Usually, they include a little ring tucked inside a piece of baking parchment, baked into the bread.
BONFIRES, or bone-fires, are lit to mark the end of the period of growth and to bring in the new year. The crops are already harvested and the turf is saved. Famers bring in the sheep and cattle from the summer pastures. Debts are settled and rural reunions take place on All Hallows Day.
In ancient Ireland, people smother their home-fires and gather at a community ritual to honour the gods with gifts and sacrifices. In the darkness, they wait for the Druids to ceremonially light the first new fire of the year. Then, people cast symbolic objects into the bonfire and pray for the coming year’s success. At the end of the ceremony, each family elder brings a light from the bonfire back to their home. They use it to ignite a new fire in the hearth of each dwelling place.
Ashes from the Samhain bonfires are also sprinkled on the fields as a blessing for protection and fertility.
C – candle, cabbages, colcannon
During evening prayers, the family lights a CANDLE for each of their departed relatives. The candle may even sit in the window of a room where a relative has died. Each candle is left to burn through the night as a beacon for the family spirit to find their way home.
CABBAGES appear in the old rural games and spells. Find the biggest cabbage and toss it hard against a neighbours door on Hallowe’en night. The awful thud gives everyone a fright.
Country girls are blindfolded and led into the cabbage patch or field. They must pull the first cabbage they find. If the cabbage has a lot of earth at the roots, their future sweetheart will be rich. If the cabbage is mouldy or riddled with maggots……it’s not looking good for a romance!
COLCANNON is a traditional Irish potato recipe, and is often part of the Halloween Feast. Boil some potatoes and green cabbage (or kale). Mash and mix with chopped scallions (spring onions). Arrange in a big bowl and season with salt and pepper. Make a large hollow in the centre, and drop in some generous curls of salted butter. Dip a spoonful of the potato mixture into the melting butter before eating. This delicious dish is a childhood favourite for many, and even has its own song! Play the video at the end of this article and sing along!
D – dead, devil
After midnight, people were afraid to wake up or hear sounds in the house. They would not get out of bed in case they were to find the returned DEAD of the family sitting around the kitchen table!
There is an old proverb which literally means that children have the DEVIL in their bellies at Halloween.
“Bíonn an diabhal i mboilg na bpáistí Oíche Shamhna!”
Children are full of devilment at Hallowe’en!
E – “eve”
The “EVE” is the old word for the evening time which precedes a special day. Evening celebrations originate with the Celtic belief that the day starts at sunset, rather than sunrise. Thus, Hallowe’en is a shortened form of “All Hallows Eve”.
F – faeries, fairy-forts, fallen angels
The early Irish think the FAERIES are either the Tuatha Dé Danann, or FALLEN ANGELS. Or both! They live underground in mystical kingdoms, or behind a magical veil on the Irish FAIRY-FORTS. On Samhain, the faeries troop across the countryside and capture humans to join in with their merry-making. Offerings of food or milk should be left in dishes outside to appease them.
G – graveyard, ghosts
Families often visit the GRAVEYARD where their loved ones are buried. They lay fresh flowers and light a grave-candle to honour their memory. They say prayers for each departed family member and make sure the grave is looking neat and tidy.
There is a Celtic belief that the souls of the human dead cross over from the supernatural realm into the land of the living during Samhain. Human souls are said to revisit their former homes as GHOSTS.
Telling ghost stories is still popular today, and many like to watch scary movies at Hallowe’en.
H – holy-water
All babies in the house should be sprinkled with HOLY WATER at Hallowe’en. This will prevent the fairies from stealing them away, and replacing them with a “changeling”. This terrifying superstition appears in many old stories and poems.
Many senior citizens still remember how Holy Water was sprinkled on outhouses, sheds, and farm animals to keep them safe during Samhain.
I – ivy-leaf
In another spell game, nine IVY leaves are used to bring on a dream of the future spouse.
J – Jack O’Lantern
In 18th-century Ireland, Jack is a mean and nasty blacksmith. When he dies, he is denied entry in to heaven. The devil doesn’t want him in hell either, and condemns his spirit to wander the earth for eternity. The devil grants Jack one last request, something to light his way. Jack receives a burning coal ember which he places inside a hollowed- out turnip. Thus, the original JACK O’ LANTERN is born.
Traditionally, people in Ireland carve out turnip lanterns and illuminate them with a candle. The turnip is a very dense root-vegetable, and carving is especially dangerous and usually left to the adults. In the United States and Canada**, the custom continues with Irish emigrants who hollow-out pumpkins instead. Why? Because they are a lot more plentiful than turnips, and much easier to carve!
K – key augury, Kerry beans
An old-time augury involves an old KEY and molten lead. It is important to use only the key from the hallway door. Melt scraps of lead in a spoon over a candle-flame. Pour the liquid lead through gaps in the key into a basin of water. Study the shapes that the lead makes – these symbols will give clues to the future!
Here in County KERRY, another divination game involves two beans:
L – legends
There are many traditional folk tales and fairy stories that give us an insight into old LEGENDS of ghosts and fairies. We have many of these in our own library. You can even find some online. Especially relevant are the following:
Crofton Croker: Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland from 1825
Kennedy: Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts from 1862
The book of Hallowe’en from 1919
M – masks, mirror
MASKS are made from the sleeves of old nightwear, to cover up your face. Wear it when you go outside to stop bad spirits from recognising you!
At Hallowee’en, cover every MIRROR inside the house with sheets. This will prevent lost, disembodied souls from entering the living world. Some spells suggest reciting an incantation at midnight by candlelight in front of the mirror. Your future spouse will appear in the looking glass, or perhaps the devil himself!
N – needle
Wear a steel NEEDLE in the lapel of your coat to prevent the fairies from abducting you! They can’t stand metal, so will leave you alone and take another instead!
O – oíche (night or evening)
In Irish Gaelic, there are several names for the festival:
- Oiche na Sprideanna – Spirit Night
- Oídhche na h-aimléise– The night of mischief or con
Oiche na N-úll – Apple night
P – púca, plates
One of the most terrifying creatures you can meet at night is the PÚCA. This is a spirit animal or spook who appears as a black, demonic pig, dog or horse. It has glowing red eyes and can speak in human tongue. He will spit or urinate on any remaining fruits still on the trees, rendering them poisonous and unfit to eat.
For a game, set four PLATES upon a table. Pour water into one, place a ring on another, some clay on the third and some straw, salt or oats on the last. Lead someone blindfold to the table and have them choose a plate. Where they place their hand determines their future! The water signifies emigration, the ring marriage, the clay death and the fourth prosperity. Re-arrange the plates for the remaining players.
Q – quiet-spells
Some of the divination games require one to remain silent after the spell. This is to prevent any further chatter spoiling the strength of the spell. Stay QUIET, or you will confuse the spirits as to what you want!
R – revelry
The Celtic people wanted to entertain the dead; to keep them sweet and encourage them to take an interest in the living. Youngsters play pranks, tricks and games associated with old Samhain rituals. The tribal elders recount all of the events of the past year for the benefit of those who have passed on. Story-telling, REVELRY and fancy-dress still play a prominent part in Halloween celebrations today.
S – salt, skeleton
A morbid custom involves thimbles and SALT. Each person at the Samhain party should fill a thimble with salt, and turn it out on a plate, remembering which stack belongs to them. They are left overnight in the darkness. The next morning, if your stack remains standing, you will enjoy good health. If it falls, you won’t live to see the next Samhain!
SKELETONS often appear in decorations, to trick the fairies and spirits into thinking there is no-one alive in the house worth bothering!
T – turnip
Traditionally in Ireland, the Jack O Lantern is carved from a TURNIP, not a pumpkin. This is a native vegetable, abundant at harvest time. However, it is also very difficult to carve, and sharp knives slip easily in its dense flesh. Accordingly, adults carve out the lantern face, rather than children.
The modern-day pumpkin also smells a lot nicer when it’s heated by a burning candle!
U – “under-the-briar”
In a pact with the devil, men bravely go underneath a thorny briar bush to attain special skills. Some tell of fantastic traditional musicians, who excel in their art after a Samhain trip “UNDER THE BRIAR”
V – “vizard-guising”
Wearing fancy-dress costumes dates to the Druids. They believe that the living and dead are at their closest on the night before Samhain. Evil spirits will attempt to collect as many souls as they can. Disguising oneself as a fellow spirit confuses the demons, so bands of young people would dress as a “VIZARDs” and go out “GUISING”. This usually involves singing and satire, and begging gifts from the neighbours! (Trick or treat!)
W – water
When throwing out WATER at Halloween, the elders shout seachain! (beware!) or chughaibh an t-usce! (water towards you!). This warns the ghosts and fairies to step aside so they won’t be splashed. Without a warning, they will be highly insulted and bring down their wrath upon you and your loved ones.
X – “x-shaped parshell”
It is customary to make a special Samhain cross called a “Parshell”. Lay two seven-inch sticks in an X-SHAPE, then weave wheat-straw around the junction to secure the cross. Hang it above the door inside the house. This will protect the family from illness, bad luck and witchcraft until the next Halloween when a new cross should be made.
When removing the old Parshell, say the magic word ‘Fonstarensheehy!’ Phonetically, this is likely to mean “Fan istigh ar an sídhe”, meaning “Stay inside to hinder the fairies.”
Y – yarrow
Cut nine stalks of the YARROW plant with a black-handled knife. When everyone has gone to bed, chant:
“Good morrow, good morrow, my pretty yarrow!
I pray before this time tomorrow
You will tell me who my true love will be.
The clothes that he wears, and the name that he bears,
And the day he’ll come to wed me!
Z – zzzzzzz- sleeping spells
Many of the charms, spells, and fortune-telling games are carried out at bedtime. The spell takes place whilst you are sleeping and unaware of the presence of magic. Sweet dreams to you! ZZZZZZZZZ zzzzzzzzz.
In conclusion, it seems like the Irish may have invented Hallowe’en! You can thank us in spirit while you party away! Here’s the Colcannon song, perfect for your family feast.
We hope you have enjoyed reading our introduction to Halloween, Samhain, All Saints and All Souls.
Here at Skellig Gift Store, we love the charm of the old Irish traditions and customs. Why not incorporate some of them into your own Hallowe’en celebrations? Check out our gorgeous Crystal bowls, for your ancestral table. Try some handmade scented candles from Valentia Island, or the new range of Newgrange candle holders.
There are also some lovely bronze plaques from Wild Goose, commemorating the important bond of family, too.
Finally, if you’re looking for a special gift, many Irish homes use their Waterford Crystal candlesticks and glassware for festive table settings.
Don’t forget, we offer free shipping worldwide on all orders.
What’s your favourite part of Hallowe’en?
We love to hear from you!