Hooray! It’s Halloween, and that means gruesome costumes, trick or treat, lots of sweets, and pumpkin lanterns… it’s a fun time of year, but did you know that this festival goes back thousands of years to the dim and distant past of our ancient ancestors?
In Ireland, Halloween is called Samhain (say it like this: Sau-win). It’s an old Irish Celtic festival which marks the end of summer, and the beginning of winter. At this time, the dead were thought to once again walk the world of the living!
To frighten off troublesome or mischievous spirits, people would disguise themselves in scary costumes. Originally, food was left out to keep the ghosts away, but eventually it became tradition to dress up and collect the food from all the houses, thus the custom of Trick or Treat was born, although it wasn’t called that for a long time to come.
Colcannon was traditionally eaten at Samhain, made from mashed potato, cabbage and raw onion. Sometimes, coins were hidden in it for the children. Barnbrack, a type of fruit bread was also eaten. Hidden inside was a rag, a coin and a ring; if your slice contained the rag, then your future did not look good. If it contained the coin, you could look forward to a prosperous year, and if you found the ring, you were destined to either meet your true love, or have a year full of happiness.
Another Samhain custom was to drop an ivy leaf into a cup of water overnight. If in the morning, it was perfect with no black spots, it meant you would have a year of good health.
In those days in Ireland, people carved turnips, not pumpkins. They would put a lit candle inside, and display it in the windows of their homes to keep away creepy Jack O’Lantern. Jack was a bad man, who wasn’t allowed into heaven or hell when he died. The devil gave him a burning ember to use for a light, which he placed inside a hollowed out turnip, and so he was doomed to wander the earth for all eternity.
Originally, bonfires were lit to symbolise the sun and to celebrate the start of the Celtic New Year, which began at Samhain, not in January like ours. All fires in peoples’ homes would be extinguished in anticipation of this significant event. Then, through the darkness, a burning torch would be carefully carried from the sacred bonfire into each home, and the hearth fire relit. This ceremony represented the sun holding back the darkness of winter, and was thought to bring the blessings of the Gods over the family who lived there.