Oíche Shamhna

A little background on the Celtic New Year festival that went global

Millions of children and adults around the world participate in Halloween celebrations every year, but perhaps few are aware of, or indeed care about, its ancient Celtic origins. Here in Ireland when I was a kid, we'd call to the doors of neighbours with a shout to "help the Halloween party!" Our bags were filled with apples, oranges, grapes and buckets of assorted nuts. If we got the odd Emerald toffee and a few coppers we were doing well. In many respects, our call to help the Halloween party reflected the original Celtic tradition of harvest celebration. It wasn't like it is today. Drop an apple in a kid’s Halloween bag these days and you’re likely to get a very qware look. Today's Halloween party stocks are more likely to be refined corn syrup.

The word Halloween is apparently derived from the Scottish shortening of Allhallow-even or All Hallows Eve and relates to a Christian festival of All Saints, and the Eve of All Saints celebrated on the last day of October (circa. 1550s). In Christian terms hallowed refers to a holy or saintly person, as in “hallowed be thy name.” As you can probably guess, Christianity in its attempts to convert the "pagan" folk of Celtic lands, piggy-backed on their ancient festivals so that conversion to the faith might be an easier transition.

Anyway, let's carry on...

In ancient Celtic lands such as Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Britany & Normandy northwestern France, the 1st of November marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of darker, colder winter months. It was called in Irish, "An Samhain" (also; Sauin, Samain, An tSamhain, Samhainn). The exact etymology is unclear, however, many consider it to mean summer's end or harvest's end. An Samhain was considered the time when the veil between the mortal world of people and the world of an Sí (Shee), the faery people, was lifted allowing the dead to walk amongst the living. Bonfires were lit to protect livestock and property and people appeased an Sí with offerings of food and drink to ensure they survived the winter. The souls of dead family members were thought to revisit their homes and a place was often set for them at the celebration table.

From an Irish perspective, two hills located in the Boyne Valley, Co. Meath, were associated with Samhain in ancient times; Tlachtga (Hill of Ward) near Athboy, and Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. Tlachtga was the location of the pre-Christian Fire Festival which began on the eve of Samhain, the Celtic New Year. Tara was also associated with Samhain, however, it was secondary to Tlachtga. The entrance passage to the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara was constructed to align with the rising sun around Samhain in early November and again in February. The Mound of the Hostages is estimated to be 4,500 to 5000 years old, suggesting that Samhain was celebrated long before European Celts arrived in Ireland about 2,500 years ago.

In more recent centuries in Ireland, people celebrating An Samhain wore costumes and disguises to hide from evil spirits and cast the bones of slaughtered animals into bonfires. A feast was prepared for the living and the dead and food for the ancestors was ritually shared with the less well off. Divination was also a big part of the festival and disguises often involved mimicking the Gods and involved gathering and sharing nuts, apples, and other autumn fruit. As the Irish and others of Celtic origin emigrated in their droves to America in the 19th century, they brought their festival traditions with them. Over time, many different cultures blended with the Samhain festival. For example, the American harvest tradition of carving pumpkins and the Mexican tradition of el Día de los Muertos (The Day of The Dead), and An Samhain became better known as Halloween.

Last night the clocks were turned back and the evenings have become darker. People get gloves and hats and winter coats from the bottom of closets and the Northern hemisphere hunkers down for another winter. Halloween marks the end of the harvest and the brighter days.

So there you have it, a bit of useless information for a Sunday evening. Have a good An Samhain however you celebrate it.


How to pronounce Oíche Shamhna