Celebrating Halloween With The Celts
Young trick-or-treaters, prowling the dusky gloom on Halloween, know very little about the holiday they are celebrating in the United States. Dressed as witches and ghosts, modern heroes and old-time villains, these children unwittingly act out ancient Irish traditions that began with a Celtic pagan festival some two thousand years ago and which has evolved over the centuries into a Christian celebration on the evening of the feast of All Saints’ Day.
In Ireland today, one of the few countries where ancient Celtic customs still survive, Halloween is traditionally known as the Eve of Samhain (Pronounced “SAH win”) or summer’s end. Samhain marks the beginning of the Celtic New Year, which is celebrated on the 1st of November, and the end of the grazing season. It was on the eve of this new year, October 31, that the ancient Celtic order of Druids would honor Samhain, who was also known as the lord of the dead. This particular time of year, along with its unique customs and traditions, eventually became known as the Vigil of Samhain.
According to Celtic legend, Lord Samhain could control the spirits of the dead. He could either allow them to rest peacefully or spur them into a wild frenzy. Thus once a year, on the night of October 31st, Lord Samhain would assembled the souls of all those who had died during the previous year. To pay for their sins, the souls were put into the bodies of animals. The greater a person’s sins, the lower the animal into which his or her soul would pass. Thus, the Eve of Samhain became a night of danger and dread, a night when all sorts of goblins, ghosts, and monsters were thought to roam the earth freely and sometimes disastrously. With the joining of the old year to the new, the mortal world and the spirit world were opened to each other. The dead could return to this world, perhaps to even an old score or to demand justice for a previous wrong done to them. It was a night when mortals had to be careful to avoid any contact with the unearthly.
In addition to worshiping Lord Samhain, the ancient Celts also honored their own sun god, who as the ripener of grain, was their greatest friend. Without the sun, there would be no food, and the people would starve. So, once the summer’s harvest was safely stored, the Celts tried to help strengthen the sun god for the coming battle with the darkness and cold of winter. They attempted to accomplish this in two ways. The first was through the centuries old tradition of lighting great bonfires on the eve of the New Year, October 31. The ancient Celts believed that evil spirits lurked about as the sun god grew pale and Lord Samhain grew stronger. According to tradition, all fires had to be extinguished and new ones lit from the bonfires located on the hill sides to usher in the beginning of the new year. By doing so, they hoped to scare the evil spirits away and to bring in abundance and light and another victory for the sun over the powers of darkness.
On the day after, November 1st, the Celts would follow this observance with the offering of animal sacrifices to the sun god. This would be followed by feasting and partaking in many fun activities, including dancing and fortune telling. Thus, the Vigil of Samhain was also a joyful harvest festival as well as a day of dread and fear.
To this day, there are places in the countryside of Ireland and even Scotland where the locals build huge bonfires to mark the occasion. It is in these areas where the old Druid order lasted longer than anywhere else in the Celtic region.
Another Celtic custom, still celebrated among some, include the country folk lacing their pitchforks with dry straw and setting it on fire. Then waving the pitchforks in the air, the people warn all witches to leave the area. If any fly too low, the flaming pitchforks are supposed to singe their evil brooms and send the witches scurrying elsewhere.
The people of Wales, like those of Ireland, also built Halloween fires on the Vigil of Samhain. But their celebration was a bit more somber. Each family member wrote his or her name on a white stone and threw it into the fire. Then the family marched around the fire, praying for good fortune. In the morning, after the fire had died out, each family member sifted the ashes in search of his or her stone. If a stone was missing, it meant that the spirits would call the soul of that person during the coming year.
Through a series of historical events, the traditions of the Vigil of Samhain eventually was shared with peoples of other lands. In the first century before Christ, Roman armies invaded and conquered Celtic Gaul and Britain. These lands became part of the Roman Empire. Many of the Roman soldiers remained in these new territories. Some of them adopted the beliefs of the Druids. Converts to the Celtic ways reached as far as Rome itself. This greatly disturbed the Roman emperors, who banned the Druid religion and arrested and executed many of their priests. Those who escaped went into hiding. Eventually, the priests faded away. Yet, the Celts held firmly to their Druid customs. Year after year, on the Eve of Samhain, they continued to built bonfires and prepared for the arrival of spirits.
In the meantime, a new religion, Christianity, had been born. Weak at first, with few followers, it grew until, in the fourth century after Christ, the Roman Emperor Constantine declared it lawful. In all parts of the Roman Empire, the Christian fathers, with support from their new Christian Emperors, did their utmost to stamp out everything pagan, as they branded the older religions including that of the Celts.
Despite later successes among the Germanic and Teutonic peoples, the Christian leaders found it hard to persuade the Celts that the gods they had known for centuries were either evil or false. It was even more difficult to wipe out their rites and symbols. Thus, the Christian Church gave to these Celtic rites new meanings and names. Those Celts who converted to Christianity were told that the fire rites they had held for the Lord of the Dead on October 31 would now protect them against Satan — the enemy of God and the Christian Church.
In the seventh century, the Church set aside All Saints’ Day in memory of early Christians who died for their beliefs. First celebrated on May 13th, Pope Gregory IV changed the date to the 1st of November in 835 A.D.. Thus the old pagan traditions and observances associated with the Vigil of Samhain were combined with the Christian feast into the Halloween festival.
In Ireland and Scotland, where Celtic traditions remained strong, the people went on anticipating the arrival of Spirits and demons on October 31. Gathering in groups, they trembled at unusual sounds and shuddered at stories of apparitions met in previous years. Yet, they also enjoyed themselves in the tradition of the ancient Samhain harvest celebration, feasting on nuts and apples, telling fortunes, dancing and partaking in a variety of social activities.
During this time, another name for All Saints’ Day emerged as All Hallows. Thus, October 31st became known as All Hallows’ Even, which was later shortened to Halloween.
In Ireland, All Hallows’ Eve is also a time when fairies, banshees, and leprechauns (a male type of fairy) are thought to emerge for the purpose of playing tricks on everyone. Also known as the Little People or fairy folk, they are believed to live underground or in dark places.
Some Celtic scholars tend to support the notion that these fairy folk actually existed. It is believed that during the Stone Age, a small, dark skinned people lived in northern Europe and the British Isles. In Britain and Ireland, they were conquered by the Celtic invaders.
These Little People were said to have lived in forests or in hiding near forts and towns. Their low huts, roofed with turf, looked much like mounds. The green clothing they wore blended with the fields and forests. This helped to protect them form the conquerors, who continually hunted and persecuted them.
Never risking open attack on their enemies, the dwarf people waylaid travelers, kidnapped, and sometimes murdered them. In certain parts of Europe, the little stone arrows they shot at people and cattle became known as elf bolts.
Now and then someone would catch a glimpse of the Little People, and be amazed at the way they vanished, as if by magic. Their secretive ways, swiftness, and unusual size convinced the Celts that they were either fairies or leprechauns (an Irish male fairy) and, therefore, evil.
Many a housewife put out dishes of food for the dwarf people at night, hoping to keep them from harming her home and family. Any food that was left in the morning was thrown away in case the spiteful Little People had poisoned it.
Scholars admit nothing is known of the religion of these dwarf people, except that once every seven years they made a human sacrifice to their god. For this purpose they stole children from their neighbors, the Celts. From this may have developed the belief in Ireland that fairies would steal newborn human babies from the cradles and leave fairy children in their place.
The Little People also hated the Celts’ superior iron tools. Their own tools were crude ones, made of stone. Their fear and hatred of iron became a protective charm. Touching iron or hanging it above a doorway was said to scare the fairies away and bring good luck. An iron horseshoe was especially lucky because of its crescent shape, once sacred to a pagan moon goddess.
Legends and stories tell of mortals who fell in love with and married fairies and tried to help them win a human soul. Such tales could mean that, in time, the Little People were absorbed by the Celts around them.
In addition to Halloween spirits and demons, the traditions of “dressing up” and “trick-or-treat” also originated in Celtic Ireland. On the night of October 31, peasants paraded from house to house in search of contributions to Muck Olla, another of the Druid mischievous spirits. This ancient procession was led by a man wearing a white robe and a horse head mask. The horse was sacred, a symbol of fertility, to the Druid’s sun god. The leader of this procession was called Lair Bhan, which means white mare. Behind him walked the young men who served as his assistants, blowing cows’ horns to let the villagers know they were coming. Others followed the group throughout the evening, sometimes making a procession of fifty people or more.
At each farmhouse the costumed leader called out the head of the household. Then he recited a long string of verses that told the farmer that his good fortunes were due to the goodness of Much Olla. So, if the farmer wanted to prosper during the coming year, he had better make a generous contribution to that spirit.
That was usually enough to make the farmer open up his heart and his purse strings. If not, Lair Bhan issued a warning to what might happen if Much Olla’s messengers were not treated well. There might be famine or drought. The farmer’s family might suffer great illness or death. His animals might die. His crop yields might be too small to see this family through the coming year. Few farmers wanted to deal with the vengeance of an angry Much Olla. So, nearly all gave generously.
Not all of the tradition of “dressing up” on Halloween comes from pagan ritual though. It also has its origins in the Irish Catholic Church. On All Hallows, many Irish churches staged plays called pageants for the benefit of their members. Those in the pageant dressed up as the patron saints who were their special guardians. Those who were not playing the parts of holy ones also got into the act by dressing up as devils. The All Hallows procession marched from the church out to the churchyard, where the play often continued until late evening. In time, nearly everyone in Ireland thought of October 31st as a night for dressing up in costume — either to satisfy the Druid spirit, Muck Olla, or as part of the Christian ceremony of All Hallows.
Gradually, the costumes of Halloween changed from the traditional horses, saints, and devils to that of ghosts, witches, and goblins. Many Irish, still clinging to ancient beliefs, hoped that dressing in eerie costumes would trick demons prowling toe earth on Halloween into thinking they were demons, too. Then the real demons would leave them alone. Others felt that scary costumes might frighten away creatures from the world of Satan.
The trick-or-treat tradition, itself, traces its origins back to 17th century Ireland. At that time, peasants went from door to door asking for money to buy food for the feast of All Saints’ Day to be celebrated on November 1st.
Eventually, the tradition of dressing up in costume and the custom of going from house to house in search of “treats” were combined.
In later years, the celebration and its traditions were brought to America during the mid-nineteenth century when thousands of Irish crowed the shores of the United States following An Gorta Mór, the “Great Hunger” of 1847-1849 in Ireland. The Irish immigrants introduced secular Halloween customs that became popular in the late 19th century. These customs also included mischief making by boys and young men. From time to time, these Halloween tricks got out of hand. They took such forms as overturning sheds and outhouses and breaking windows; damage to property was sometimes severe. Around 1900, when outhouses were still commonly used in rural areas, Halloween tricksters often upturned them or carried them off. Sometimes, they set fire to the outhouses, burning them to the ground. They thought it was great fun to see the owners come out to use the outhouse toilet, only to find it gone. In later years this occasion has come to be observed mainly by small children, who go from house to house demanding “trick or treat”; the treat is generally forthcoming and the trick rarely played. This earlier custom of mischief making may also have led to the origins of mischief night, as it now occurs in the United States on October 30.
In addition to these, there are other Halloween related customs observed in the United States which are Irish in origin. An example of this would be the custom of bobbing for apples. To the Irish, All Hallows’ Eve was a time when the future could be seen by following certain practices. In order to ascertain who would marry, thrive, or die in the the new year, the Irish would dunk for apples. When anyone caught one in his or her teeth, that person would peel the apple and fling the peel over the shoulder. After it landed — depending upon the question asked — the peel was supposed to form a letter indicating the name of a future spouse or the name of someone who would either prosper or possibly die during the coming year..
If you think that black cats crossing your path bring bad luck, you can blame the Irish, who believe that black cats were former beings changed into animals as a form of punishment for having done evil. To this day, there are still Irish people who believe that if a person sets out on a journey and encounters a black cat who stares him in the face, he should return home to avoid misfortune.
The ancient Irish also believed that spirits lived in the trees and would, therefore, “knock-on-wood” to ensure that their good luck would continue. Even the term “fortnight,” meaning two weeks, originated with these Celts who measured time in night, not days.
Despite the fun of masks, costumes, and mischief of present day Halloween, the Jack-O-Lanterns and treat offerings, there still lurks the ancient fear of evil spirits and the attempts to pacify them. This is demonstrated by the tradition of carving out and illuminating large vegetables. Although there were no pumpkins in Ireland, there were plenty of oversized rutabagas and turnips, even potatoes if necessary, that could be hallowed out, carved with grotesque faces, and illuminated by a candle.
This tradition was based on an ancient Irish legend that tells us that the famous “Jack-O-Lantern” was named after an Irishman called Stingy Jack who was known for his practical jokes, as well as being a miser.
Different tales have emerged to explain this legend. According to one version, Jack was traveling along a country road when the devil suddenly appeared beside him. Jack knew the devil had come to claim his soul, for he had been a stingy, mean, selfish man. As the two walked along, they came to a tree heavy with big, red apples.
Jack suggested that the two stop for a moment so as to taste the delicious fruit. The devil agreed but told Jack that the apples were beyond the reach of his arm. With that, Jack suggested that the devil stand on his shoulders. This way, the apples would be within his grasp. So the devil climbed up onto Jack’s shoulders, swung himself onto a branch of the tree, and began picking the biggest, reddest fruit he could find. Suddenly, Jack whipped out his pocketknife and carved the sign of the cross on the trunk. That made it impossible for the devil to climb down out of the tree.
“Get me down from here,” cried the devil, “and I won’t claim your soul for ten years!” But Jack was far too smart to fall for that and refused to let the devil down until he promised never to claim Jack’s soul. Desperate to be free, Satin agreed.
According to another version, it wasn’t the apple tree where Jack played this trick on the devil but rather in a pub. When Satan came to claim Jack’s soul at the time of his death, Jack suggested they both have a drink before starting out on the road to Hell. Since neither had any money, Jack suggested that Satan change himself into a shilling. When the drinks were paid for, Satan could revert back to his original form. As soon as Satan changed into the shilling, Jack seized the coin and popped it into this change purse which had a cross-shaped catch. Unable to break the barrier of the cross, Satan was both trapped and wild with anger. “Promise never to claim me and I will let you out,” said Jack. Though enraged, Satan had to agree and Jack was happy, or at least he though so.
Regardless of which version one tells, the ending does not change. Jack wasn’t as smart as he’d thought. Before the next Jack, his body wore out, and his soul needed a place to go. Unfortunately, Jack could find rest in neither Heaven nor Hell. He was turned back from the gates of Heaven because he had neglected to share his money with the poor. He was also refused entrance to Hell because he had played a practical joke on the devil.
His punishment was to return to the earth and walk it each night until Judgment Day. However, Jack cried out to Satan that he would be unable to find this way back to Earth in the dark. So the devil threw him a chunk of coal from the fiery furnaces of hell. Unable to hold the coal in his hand, Jack fashioned a lantern by carving a nearby turnip and placed it inside. Ever since, Jack has been wandering the earth with this first Jack-o-lantern, weary but finding no rest.
Whatever influence Celtic pagan rites or Christian celebrations had on the development of All Hallows’ Eve, we can thank the ancient Celts and their modern counterparts, the Irish, for preserving traditions and for giving a Christian meaning to a pagan holiday that is looked forward to by trick-or-treaters, young and old alike, throughout the United States, today.
Celebrating Halloween With The Celts
Gríoghár Seán Ó Canannáin
Greg Seán Canning